11:46 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Hi, everyone.
MS. LEIVE: Well, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us for this discussion today. I know this is a cause near and dear to both of your hearts, so I guess I want to ask — start with the most basic question, which is why? Mrs. Obama, why this for you? Why this cause?
MRS. OBAMA: Well, education is a very personal thing for me. As I tell girls whenever I meet them, I wouldn’t be here, sitting here not just in this chair but in the life that I have, if it weren’t for my education. I know that when you hear the phrase “knowledge is power,” it’s true.
Through my education, I didn’t just develop skills, I didn’t just develop the ability to learn, but I developed confidence. I mean, going to Princeton from a predominantly working-class community, a public school where people told me that I couldn’t do a whole range of things, and then going to one of the top schools in the world and being able to compete and to thrive — that is an ultimate confidence booster. And it was clear to me that if I could get through Princeton at the top of my class, I could do anything in the world.
So making sure that girls around the world who are just as bright, just as able as me, have the same opportunities to take their education seriously, to have access, has become a mission that I take very seriously. So as I said, this is something that means a great deal. We can't afford not to educate girls and give women the power and the access that they need. So we're going to keep working hard.
MS. LEIVE: All right.
Yara, why does it matter to you?
MS. SHAHIDI: Well, as a senior — I'm applying to colleges right now — but as a senior, education has been so important in my life. And also just an actress it's opened so many doors because it's made me truly interested in the world around me. And I think my love of acting is the same reason I want to study sociology, because I'm interested in humans.
MRS. OBAMA: I was a sociology major.
MS. SHAHIDI: Oh, my goodness. Write my recommendation letter, please! (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: You got it. You got it. I got you covered, kid.
MS. LEIVE: Seize your moment, girl. (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: See how you do that? You take the opportunity. Way to go, Yara. I can do that.
MS. SHAHIDI: Education has played such a key role in, like you said, me having confidence and me having the ability to, I guess, vocalize what I wanted to say and give me the confidence to even be on this panel right now, because I had been freaking out — I'm still freaking out that I'm sitting next to you.
But it's so important in the development of just being a kid to know that you have the knowledge to succeed in the world around you. Because it's more than just, oh, I memorized what the textbook said. But it really applies to every, like, daily life occurrences, and just how you get a job or how you have a career, or how you want to do whatever you want to do in life. And so it is important to make sure that everybody has access to that because it's been so critical in my growing.
MS. LEIVE: Well, I want to go to one of our watch parties. One of the biggest obstacles that is facing girls right now is this still-pervasive idea — and, Mrs. Obama, you've talked about it a lot — that boys are more entitled to an education than girls are. It's changing, but it's changing slowly. So, in so many cultures, girls are really still expected to keep up the work of the home, and often to drop out if family obligations require that someone be there. I want to know how students feel about this.
So let's start at the Children's Museum in Amman, Jordan, where daytime TV host, Mais Nobani (ph), has joined a group of students. Tell us a little bit about what's on the girls' minds there. And, by the way, hi.
MS. NOBANI: Hello. How are you all? First, I would like to say — I would like to thank you. We would like to thank you, of course, me and the girls, for having us here, and to the U.S. Embassy, of course, for having us here with you to talk about the girls' education and also to talk to the First Lady, Michelle Obama. So thank you very much.
Well, we've been talking a lot about the girls' education in Jordan, and we came up with some facts and statistics that we would really like to share with you. The first fact that might be interesting for you is that girls in Jordan, they out-perform boys in school and through university. And we are so proud to say that Jordanian society, they value education so much. So we are so proud of this. And another statistic that I would really like to share with you, it says that over the last 35 years, literacy rates for Jordanian women rose from 55 percent to 99 percent. And more women than men go to university. But we cannot deny that we have some gender stereotypes that still exist and persist.
So, I'm having her — Jamana (ph) beside me, who would like to introduce herself first, and then she would like to ask about gender stereotypes in other countries.
Q Hi, everyone. So happy to be here. My name is Jamana Hadil (ph). I'm 15 years old and I'm in tenth grade. I was born in Amman. I love reading books. And my favorite is Demi Lovato. (Laughter.) Things here in Jordan are changing, and our generation is changing society. But there are some gender stereotypes still exists, like boys have more freedoms than girls, because girls' reputation is a very important thing here.
We have a question for the First Lady and Yara. You have met so many girls around the world who face cultural barriers. And our question is, how do we change perceptions on the value of girls? Thank you.
MRS. OBAMA: That's an excellent question. And hello to all the girls in Jordan. Thank you for sharing those statistics. It's so good to see the growth and development. It's incredibly important that women are literate and educated, and it impacts the entire country and it impacts the family. So we're so happy to hear about the wonderful progress.
But barriers to access to education really vary from country to country. There is no one reason why girls aren’t educated. It could be that there's a sheer difference in the values that families place in their sons over the daughters. Sometimes girls are married off very early, and they're expected to start having kids at a very young age. Some families believe that it's a better investment to have the girls stay at home and take care of household chores. It can really vary.
That's one of the reasons why with Let Girls Learn we focused on attacking these barriers from the ground up, really working through the Peace Corps. We have Peace Corps volunteers who are on the ground for several years getting to understand a community, working with local leaders, with parents themselves, working with the girls, and trying to figure out how to strategize at the local level to change perceptions. And this work is generational.
I am optimistic that things have changed so much in Jordan, because the truth is, is that all the girls in that room, you all are the ones who are going to change the culture, because you're going to raise your girls with a different understanding of why education is important. And that's how change really happens. It happens in the family. It happens when fathers understand that a better investment than having your daughter milk the cow or to sweep a floor is to get them in school, and that increases their earning potential and it can have a tremendous impact on the financial security of that family. But it's going to be girls like you who are raising that next generation, who are going to start to change those stereotypes. And that's true for every girl around the world.
So we've got work to do. But with this improvement in literacy around the world, we're only going to see greater improvements and really critical changes in cultural norms and stereotypes.
MS. SHAHIDI: Yes, well, to build off of that, I would have to say that my generation has inspired me so much because just like we can sit here right now and all talk to each other, and we're in different parts of the world, we're now so interconnected. And this entire generation, including all of my peers here and I’m sure everyone in that room, understands that importance of education. And just knowing that and supporting one another — no matter how far away we are is so key. Because even to just know that there’s somebody out there that's supporting you and wants you to succeed is important in your self-development and just knowing that you are supposed to be here. And you're supposed to be in the room where it happens, to quote “Hamilton,” my obsession. (Laughter.)
But also to — quick story, and then it all makes sense. I was talking to my khale — I’m half Iranian, and my khale, my great aunt was in town. And she was talking about her education. And she lived in Iran for most of her life and still goes back to visit. But she remembers just how crazy it was having to move to London at 17 to then go get a college degree. But she didn't go having already applied to a college. She moved to London at 17, and then had to go apply on her own and figure all these things out on her own. But when she did, she then created a midwife program and brought it back to Mashhad, Iran, where she’s from. And just to see the impact that that made was so incredible on her community and on our community.
And it really shows the importance of how one person can really make such a huge impact, and one person understanding the importance of education really changes the entire community. And it just goes from there.
MS. LEIVE: In other words, Yara has your back. You guys are all part of an incredible sisterhood.
I want to go to a group of girls in Peru. Peru and Jordan are nowhere near one another, and they have very different cultures with very different history. But they do face a lot of the same challenges. So I’d like to ask the students at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, to tell us a little bit about the way they're trying to get rid of some of these old-fashioned ideas that girls should not be educated.
Jouranlist Mavilla Huertes (ph) is with them. Mavilla?
Q Hi. I’m so excited for the opportunity to talk about our problems, our situation, about our life, dreams, girls. This morning we were talking about women and education, okay, but also about life, about change, about dreams.
Let me see, 42 percent — less than half — of the girls in poor areas in Peru, far from the cities, finish high school. Why? Because they're families prefer boys are going to study. It’s true now in 2016. That's the situation we are living.
I’m with Maria Gracia (ph). Maria Gracia is a wonderful student from Chiclayo — oh, my God, I’m so nervous.
MRS. OBAMA: Don't be.
Q She has — so interesting question for Yara.
Q Hello, everyone. My name is Maria Gracia, and I’m 18 years old. I enjoy swimming, cycling, and watching movies. I am currently studying economics, and I’m interested in diplomatic affairs. Last month I volunteered in the Asia Pacific Economic Operation Forum in the agriculture (inaudible) here in Peru. And it was a very enriching experience.
My dream is to make sure everyone in Peru has equal access to an education. So here in Peru, we have — we face similar challenges as they do in Jordan. And for example, here many families think — believe that young girls should stay home and take care of children or do housework. And even when girls and women find jobs, they get paid less than men. So I want to use my education to become a leader in Peru and help change the way people view the role of women and girls.
So my question is for Yara. Yara, how do you think girls should handle situations when people underestimate them or don't treat them as well because they're girls?
MS. SHAHIDI: Well, that's a really good question. I would have to say first and foremost just being a teenager can be difficult in and of itself, and then given that there are certain limitations put onto female teenagers, or just being a girl, is unfair because we’re all in the same boat of wanting to be educated and wanting to have opportunities based on our interests.
I would have to say that when somebody underestimates you — and I’ve been in that boat before — it’s more than — what I realized about it was that it’s more than trying to prove them wrong, but making sure that you prove yourself right, and make sure that you reaffirm your own beliefs and your own self-worth because overall that means more, and I feel like that gives you the drive. I think, while it’s important to make sure that you have constructive conversations about why education is important to you to help change those minds, it’s even more important to just continue with your dream. And I know that’s easier said than done, and it sounds very theoretical, but know that there are people here, like I said before, supporting you. And that there are people that want you to be educated and when you want you to be educated, that’s possibly the most powerful step.
MS. LEIVE: Well, I don’t know how often you get underestimated these days but it must have happened to you when you were young. How do you cope?
MRS. OBAMA: It happened all the time, and that’s one thing I want all these girls to know. When you look at me, you see me now as the First Lady, but there are still doubts. There are still people who question whether I would be a good First Lady, question whether I was strategic enough or whether my initiatives would have an impact. So all throughout my life, there are people who have underestimated me, as I’m sure they underestimate you.
But like Yara said, for me, I always use that as a challenge. The one way to get me to work my hardest was to doubt me. And I took that as, I will show you who I am. I remember my thesis advisor, who was a wonderful professor. And I know I was working on my senior thesis when I was at Princeton. And I had a great topic, and I was working pretty hard, but I wasn’t working as hard as I could have. And I know I went to him for a letter of recommendation for law school. And he did one of the best things — he was really honest. He said, you know, you’re a good student but — because I had gotten As in all his classes, by the way. But he said, are you the best thing I’ve seen coming out of the box? I’m not sure.
And I didn’t say a word. I went back to my dorm room, and for the next three months, I worked so hard on that thesis. I was in his office every day. We were on the floor working on questions. I just said — instead of letting that deter me, I used it as a way to boost me to work harder. And he wrote me a letter of recommendation. I don’t know what he said in that first letter. I accepted it. But later on, after a few months of working him, one day in the office, he looked up and he said, what are you doing after college? And I said, well, I’m applying to law school, you wrote me a letter of recommendation. And he was like, did I? (Laughter.) I said, yeah, you did. And it got quiet, and then he said, I think I’m going to write you another letter. And I said, okay. I got in. I don’t know what that first letter said, but just by working harder and proving him wrong — I didn’t have to say a word. I didn’t question his first opinion of me. I used it and I worked harder.
That’s what these women and girls have to do. Sometimes we have to be better. Sometimes we have to work harder. Sometimes we have to work to combat those negative thoughts in our heads about who we are, and how we look, and what people think about us. So many of us, as women and girls, we are haunted by the voices of other people who tell us what we can’t do. And it’s something that you have to work on every single day. Every woman that you know is working on this. I am still working on it. And it takes being conscious of the fact that these voices are there, and they can hold you back. But you’ve got to push through them. Yara, are you jumping in on that one?
MS. SHAHIDI: I guess what I’d have to say to add to that is, also understanding that the other voices in your head are also humans with flaws is important, and it’s not these other perfect beings correcting you because you’re an imperfect being. It’s more so their opinion. And while opinions matter, at the same time, your own opinions are more important to your own development.
I remember a teacher telling me that I was too direct in how I communicated. And it shook me to my core because I prided myself on this idea that I could communicate my thoughts with my teachers and that I could get my thoughts across perfectly. And then she was like, you know, people are going to think that you’re being too fierce, too aggressive –
MRS. OBAMA: Aggressive. That’s the word that they’ve — been used for me often. Too aggressive, too loud, too bossy.
MS. SHAHIDI: Yeah. I think it challenged me, and what I realized is that it’s okay to take up space. And that it’s okay to take up the space around me unabashedly without the fear of being too loud or aggressive. That just means that I’m owning my space even more.
MS. LIEVE: And you’re talking about those words like “aggressive” and “loud” — how do you reset that in your head? What do you reset it to?
MRS. OBAMA: Well, aggressive is assertive. Loud is confidence. It’s how you take those words. Maybe they were said to you, or about you, in a negative light, but you turn them around and you make them positive attributes. Because, let me tell you, to compete in school, in schools where boys are given the benefit of the doubt, you’re going to have to be aggressive. And you’ve got to be confident. And there are times when you need to be loud and speak your mind. I've had to do that in every room of power that I've sat in, and I've had to learn that my voice has value. And if I don’t use it, what's the point of me being in the room?
And oftentimes what you find — if you sit and listen, whether it's in a classroom or a boardroom or an office, you will hear men talk and talk and talk. And if you listen, many of them aren’t saying anything. (Laughter.) They're just talking a lot. And once you realize that they're not saying anything more than what's going on in your head, then you start developing the courage to put your opinion right there on the table, right with them.
So I want girls around the world to understand that you're not alone when you hear these voices. These aren’t new feelings. It's completely understandable. But it's you, and only you, that can drown those voices out. And another way to do that is to surround yourself by people who give you positive reinforcement. You have to learn how to, as we say here, ignore the haters. You got to keep them out of your life. You have to surround yourself by people who lift you up. And if it's one voice, keep that voice close to you.
For me, it was my parents — my parents who didn’t go to college, but they believed in me. They knew I was as smart as my brother. And those were the voices that I went home to and got refilled. My courage was reborn in my conversations with my parents. But if you don’t have parents, find that friend, that neighbor, that mentor — but you've got to feed yourself with positive energy, and work hard to keep the negative voices out of your life.
MS. LEIVE: Yara, you look like you were about to jump in there when we were talking about the men at the table.
MS. SHAHIDI: Well, one, I have to say, I have my chakra necklace on under this, just — the importance of positive energy is so key. But also, I remember I was in speech and debate, and what was funny about it was that it was my first competition, and I was in there with my friend — and I went to an all-girls Catholic school, so we were the only all-female team there.
And the first person I was up against were two boys with really serious bowl cuts — (laughter) — and I remember going in, and I had lost all of the articles. And what was so interesting was, even though I had no articles to defend my argument, what they did was, even though we had a completely valid argument, was to say, but you're not reliable — you're not a reliable debater. And basically they questioned whether or not I should even be in the room. And that really got to me.
And I think when I finally analyzed that moment of why I lost, it was because they had the appearance of confidence, and I let them get to my confidence and break me down. So even though I knew that I was more than qualified and even though I knew that I had done so much research and that everything I said could be backed up, and it was a good source, they had gotten to the idea that, “but you're a girl and you probably went on some random frilly site, and looked up these stats and they're not real.” And then, keeping that in mind, I was even stronger in my next debate, where I was like, you're not going to get to me. And I now know that I could have a completely wack argument, but as long as I am saying it like this, you're going to believe me.
MS. LEIVE: Yeah, that is a very persuasive tone of voice. Remember that in Peru. Thank you for that question.
I want to move on to another topic. One of the biggest challenges that girls face globally is safety — threats of war, kidnapping, rape, gangs, trafficking. And the physical difficulty of getting to school in environments like that can be so scary that many girls just simply decide they have no choice but to drop out. So we want to hear on that subject and others from students at the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Singer, rapper and VJ, Vanessa Mdee, is with girls in that country. Vanessa, hi. Can you tell us a little bit –
MS. MDEE: Hi, how are you?
MS. LEIVE: We're great here. Can you tell us a little bit about safety concerns in Tanzania, and how that changes life for girls and women there?
MS. MDEE: Thank you, Cindi. Hey Michelle, you look great. Hi, Yara.
MRS. OBAMA: Hey!
MS. SHAHIDI: Hi!
MS. MDEE: Okay. Thanks for joining us in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, East Africa. You're right — a lot of young women and girls face very many safety concerns in this country. And it's unfortunate that they face, and they're most vulnerable, in their quest to better their lives. I'm seated with Nasra (ph) here, and she's going to give you more on this and also pose a question.
Q Hello. My name is Nasra Abdallah (ph) in Tanzania. I would like to start by thanking — international and the U.S. Embassy for giving me this chance to talk with you, the First Lady of the world and the global students.
MRS. OBAMA: I like that promotion. Thank you. (Laughter.)
Q I'm a student. (Inaudible.) I like reading novels and singing most of the time. My dream is to become a doctor. It is true that girls in Tanzania face a safety problem. First, it's due to the tradition of beliefs. Traditions really hinder the safety of the girls in Tanzania because there is this issue of female genital mutilation whereby the private body part of a girl is removed. Most of the girls die due to excessive bleeding in this activity. And others acquire diseases, such as HIV, because the tools used aren’t sterilized. And the ones which are circumcised, most of them drop out of school, ready to be married, according to the tradition of — so this really hinders the safety of the girls.
And also, a long distance from home to school. This applies in all areas, rural and urban. Although in urban areas there are buses, but still there are some girls who walk. But along the way, there are gangsters, there are rebels. So most of the girls get raped. Others are raped and others are being attacked by thieves, whereby others get pregnant and drop out of school. So safety in Tanzania is still a huge problem for girls.
Another is early marriage, whereby parents marry girls in a very young age. At 12, you may find a girl already somebody's wife. Maybe (inaudible) wife in the age of 12. And this is due to the willingness of the parents for maybe, let's say, the bride price which is something they need. Or maybe it's to maintain family friendship — just because my father is a friend of, let's say, Frank's father, so I'm supposed to get married to Frank so that they can maintain the friendship. So this is really hindering the safety of the girls in Tanzania.
And also, I would like to pose a question to the Honorable First Lady of the world, Mrs. Obama. How do girls' safety in Africa and other countries inspire you to start Let Girls Learn? Thank you.
MRS. OBAMA: Well, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing all of that information. It takes a level of courage and bravery to speak up and speak out, to talk about the challenges that are facing many girls in Africa and other parts of the world. And it's really stories like yours, stories like those that were the inspiration for me to start Let Girls Learn.
Hearing about people like Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by terrorists who didn’t believe that a girl should not only not get an education but speak out about the importance of girls getting educated; the girls in Nigeria that have been kidnapped for the sheer desire to get an education. There are stories like these all over the world, and they are heartbreaking.
So it was so important for me to hear these stories, to understand that we cannot tolerate millions and millions of girls being denied the access to improve themselves and the lives of their families by being essentially locked out of the education process. And that was really one of the primary reasons why we started Let Girls Learn.
The other thing I always try to point out to girls who lived in countries that do not have these issues, particularly in countries like the United States, where there are girls who drop out for less reasons, or they don’t go to school, or they don’t go to class, or they don’t take their education seriously — there are still millions of girls right here in this country and other parts of the world who take their education for granted, who look at the idea of access to free public education, which is what we have here in the United States, and they ignore it. They devalue it because they find other excuses, like my school isn’t properly funded, or my teacher doesn’t like me, or I just didn’t feel well today.
We have our issues here in the United States. But I want kids here in the United States and in other parts of the world to understand that there are girls that are willing to give their life — they are literally dying, trying to get the education that many of us take for granted.
And if we really want to honor these girls, like Malala, and like the girls in Nigeria, and girls in Tanzania, who would give anything to get an education, then the very first thing we have to do is take our education seriously and not take it for granted, to be that voice. Because it’s going to be up to the girls to get that education so they can be the fighters, and the champions, and the policymakers, and the next generation of world leaders who are going to make these changes.
So this is one of the reasons why we can’t afford to ignore this issue, and we cannot afford to ever take our education for granted. Education is critical here in the United States and many parts of the world. And going to high school and going on to college is critical. And I want young girls to understand that, and to be as hungry for their education as these girls who would give anything to get theirs. We owe it to them to make that a reality. (Applause.)
MS. LEIVE: Yara, do you connect with that, that idea that in this country we do tend to take for granted the fact that girls are entitled to an education, and a free one at that?
MS. SHAHIDI: Definitely. I feel like we’re definitely privileged in the fact that education — it's a given that you will get an education. And so, so many times it’s easy to say, I have so much chemistry homework, and, oh, my goodness, I’m taking four AP classes, what is my life, I don’t have any time for myself — versus understanding — and I even had to take a moment to self-check, to understand, no, I’m allowed to take these AP classes and it’s a privilege to take these AP classes, because then it gives me the ability to then go to the college of my choice and the ability to then choose the career of my choice.
And it’s a conversation that I have with my friends because it’s so unfortunate that you have to risk your life for an education in places around the world — and that’s even a question, do I value my life and my education? The fact that you even have to think of those things is so insane. And so it’s important, especially in areas in which education is a given, that we appreciate it and that we make sure that, with our education, we do the best to expand access and rights all around the world.
MS. LIEVE: Well, thank you for that great question from Tanzania. I think we’re all very impressed by your courage.
I want to move on to another issue. We’ve talked a bit about gender stereotypes and some of the issues around safety. We touched before on confidence and self-esteem, and those are such important issues. As we all know, it’s hard for anyone else to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself. So, luckily, we have some extremely confident students joining us from the UK — girls from the Mulberry School and the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, both of which you visited, Mrs. Obama on your trips to London.
MRS. OBAMA: Hi, ladies.
MS. LEIVE: Ruth Wilson, the award-winning star of Showtime’s, The Affair. I’m obsessed with that show — we can talk about the plot later, Ruth. (Laughter.) Ruth is with those students right now.
Ruth, I know that you think self-esteem is an important and not just frivolous issue in this discussion. Why? Why does it matter to you?
Q Yeah, I was just talking to the girls earlier and I was saying that, as a kid, I was a major blusher. I mean I blushed all the time. When I was asked in school, I was asked questions, and I would go beetroot red. But I had, in my core, this very strong sense of self-belief. It was built from my family — a very supportive family. It was built from having three older brothers that I needed to keep up with, and refused to be left behind. And it was built from an amazing education that allowed me and encouraged me to discover who I was and what I believed. And it also gave me these skills — I needed to communicate my thoughts, my values, and my dreams.
And I felt, as an actress and someone — I kind of decided that core of self-belief, it gave me the courage to stand up and say to my mum and dad, at 21, I want to be an actor. It gave me the resilience to keep learning and keep growing and keep trying when I would get rejected at endless auditions and other things in my life. And it gave me the strength to stand up for things that I really believed in, both inside the industry and outside.
And essentially, that sense of self-belief has enabled me to do the job that I’ve always dreamed of doing. So for me, self-confidence and self-empowerment is vital to having a voice in your life and in the job that you choose.
And I’m sitting next to a deeply inspiring young woman, Ayesha (ph.) She is president of the Feminist Society at her school. And she’s also just participated in Women of the World Festival, where she spoke out about inspiring young women. So I’m going to hand over to Aisha.
Q Good afternoon, Mrs. Obama. Thank you for letting us take part in this discussion. I’m Ayesha. I’m 17 years old, and I am a proud British feminist. So self-empowerment is very important. The world spends so much time telling us who we can’t be and what we can’t do. There is a need for strong self-belief, to push back against the pressures, and we need to realize all the potential that we have.
I find empowerment in my education. My school is a place where I can explore who I am and develop my beliefs. I am chair of our school’s Feminist Society, and I work with wonderful school staff to help design programs with guest speakers so that we can learn about what’s possible from other successful women.
I was at Mulberry when you came to visit, Mrs. Obama, and I was so moved by what you had to say to us. You told us about your start in life and how it was extremely similar to ours. You described how you had grown up in a neighborhood a lot like this one. We learned a lot that day, and, most importantly, we learned that girls who go to school in London have a duty to utilize the skills and opportunities that we are given, and make a stand for all the sisters around the world who are denied a right to education.
We face our own challenges going to school here, believe it or not, and Tower Hamlets is one of the boroughs that has a lot of deprivation in it. However we are fortunate enough to have access to a high-quality education and schools that nurture our confidence and creativity as well as our academic achievement.
Sixty-two million girls around the world are, unfortunately, denied an education. Mulberry and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson have been given a gift, and your visit, Mrs. Obama, inspired us to share that gift with girls across the world.
After your visit, the student body worked very hard to work out how we could support Let Girls Learn. We came up with an idea. In April 2017, we will be a launching a girls leadership camp called Girls Leading. This is a residential event to bring together a community of girls from across the UK. Many will be from disadvantaged backgrounds. We will help them learn self-confidence and become effective leaders. At Girls Leading, campers will apply their leadership skills to support the work of Let Girls Learn in increasing the access to education for all girls around the world.
Mrs. Obama, is this what you had in mind when you came to visit Mulberry? (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: Oh, my goodness. That is. Yes, absolutely. You all have exceeded my expectations.
And let me just say that my visits to both of your schools, oh, I love you all so much. I've been following everything you’ve done. You all touched my heart in a way that I can't imagine. Your stories, all of your stories, and my time with you was also a part of what helped to shape Let Girls Learn, and to help me envision this sort of worldwide community of strong women and girls helping each other, and doing things like developing leadership programs, and raising awareness about the plight of girls around the world who can't go to school, and being powerful voices and individuals in their own right, to be able to stand up in their schools and in their families and their communities, and have a voice and push an agenda forward.
So I am so, so proud of all of you amazing young women. And this is really part of the point of Let Girls Learn. We have the power as women and girls, right now, today, to change the circumstances for these millions of girls around the world. We all have a voice. We all have the ability to develop leadership opportunities, or find ways within our own lives and our own schools and our communities to have an impact on this issue.
And if, at the very least, we take care to make sure that we're doing everything we can for ourselves as individuals — to be strong, prepared, educated, outspoken, confident young women — to continue to work on ourselves every day, and do it without apology, without embarrassment, to invest in ourselves as women, and to continue to do that throughout our lives.
Older women like us, sometimes we have to remind ourselves that it's okay to invest in us — to invest in our health, to invest in our continued growth, to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. We were not put on this Earth just to be good mothers or good wives; we were here to be good citizens and good individuals. And that takes investment. And I want girls to start practicing that at a very early age — not being so selfless that they can't look out for themselves.
So, to all of you there, thank you. Thank you for being that inspiration for me. You should look at what you’ve done. Let Girls Learn has now raised millions of dollars; it's having an impact. And look at what we're doing here. We're having a worldwide conversation with young women around the globe. This was a vision — and I'm so grateful to Cindy and to the Glamour team for making this happen.
This is just a taste of what we can do. Young girls, as you all said, we have access to social media. We've got Skype, we've have all of these tools. Use them. Use them to educate yourselves and to reach out to girls around the world. Don't just Snapchat what you're eating. (Laughter.) Use that tool to impart knowledge, to share wisdom, to just share your stories and spread the word. Because this conversation should lead to millions of conversations just like this happening around the world forever. This is the beginning of something huge.
So I know we can do it, and I know it's something that I'm going to spend the rest of my life working on. So I'm going to need a lot of soldiers out there like all of you — (applause)
— to help me make this happen.
MS. LEIVE: In other words, this issue does not go away for you in mid-January.
MRS. OBAMA: Not even.
MS. LEIVE: All right. All right. Glad to hear that.
On that topic of confidence, I want to hear what the girls here in D.C. are doing to make themselves feel confident and strong. What makes you girls feel like you? And if we can go to Rowan in the audience to kick up off there. What’s your take on that?
MS. BLANCHARD: Self-confidence I found through other girls; I found through sisterhood. Oftentimes, the things that we’re sold — there was a parallel recently of two magazines. One was a boys teen magazine and one was a girls teen magazine. And on the cover of the girls teen magazine it said, “Wake Up Pretty.” And on the cover of the boys teen magazine it said, “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
So I think it was important for me, and it's been important for me to find sisterhood and to find other girls who were encouraging me. And that's right here. That's being able to Skype these girls. It's what Mrs. Obama was saying about having these channels where we're able to reach out and have an audience, and able to influence them and to connect with people.
And Paradise, here, is a perfect example of that. And she’s going to talk about how her after-school program influenced her to stay in school and follow her dreams.
Q Hi, I'm Paradise. I'm from New York City. I'm here with the Lower Eastside Girls Club, which is a program for girls that teaches them things from exploring astronomy to building and programming Arduinos. This has taught me, my friends here, and so many other girls a lot about different careers they can have when they get older. So I'm very lucky to have a program like the Lower Eastside Girls Club, but not all girls have access to these kinds of opportunities such as being here today.
So my question for Yara is how did access to the arts and theater, like your acting, help you understand how important school is, and keep you grounded in your effort to get a degree?
MS. SHAHIDI: Well, such a great question. But I would have to say that I got interested in arts and theater as a result of how much I loved to read. And for me, television and movies was the result or the — my favorite book of mine coming to fruition and coming to life. And for me, it was reading Baldwin in class, and reading Sandra Cisneros in class, and reading Zora Neale Hurston, and seeing that they’re these powerful women, they’re these powerful women of color, and their stories are being appreciated by everybody in my class, and how universal that story was. And then I felt like it was then my job as the actor to then bring that story to life, and all sorts of stories to life.
And for me, just being an actor has really given me the ability to — or not ability, but the curiosity — to fully understand other people’s conditions and other people’s lives. And from that, it gave me a general curiosity that school helped fill. And for me, being in history class and being able to write an essay on whether or not we should celebrate Columbus Day; or being in math class and understanding that, while I may not ever measure the tree based on the length of its shadow, I now understand critical thinking skills. (Laughter.) I just did that yesterday. (Laughter.)
And I realized that I had to look at the bigger picture. So many times I can get caught up in the small things of when will I ever use this little detail? When will I ever have to learn about King Henry’s cousin’s wife’s child? And it's really more about being able to analyze the world around you. And that's what acting taught me, too. It was an applicable version of everything that I was learning.
And there’s a Baldwin quote that I will very loosely paraphrase — loosely, I repeat — in which he says that the paradox of education is that once you get an education you begin to analyze the society that you're in and the society educating you. And what’s so powerful about that is just this idea that when we educate ourselves we then turn around to make our society a better place, and we then realize that our system can be improved. And it is this continuous cycle of self-improvement. And while we may never reach the perfect education system, there is this hope and there is this essential part of our education system that basically says that everybody in this generation that will then graduate, or anybody who then tries to further their education turns around and says, how can I help the next generation and how can I make the system better.
MRS. OBAMA: Wow. I'm going to write your letter of recommendation. (Laughter.) Got it. Got it. It's done. In fact, I think I'm just going to send this video to every school that you apply to. (Laughter.)
MS. LEIVE: You talked about connecting with the characters in the books that you read. And that's about empathy and how art and education really open up our empathy.
And I'm curious, Mrs. Obama, about books that you read whether you were growing up –
MRS. OBAMA: Oh, yeah.
MS. LEIVE: And what were the books that opened those doors for you?
MRS. OBAMA: My absolute favorite novel of all time is Song of Solomon — Toni Morrison. I've read that book three times. And I've tried to make my daughters read it over and over again. It's a phenomenal book. But every time you read it you just uncover something else, deeper, about each character, about the words that are used and the words that — it was my first major experience in how words, beautifully written, can capture a person’s imagination. It can pull them in. It can lock them in, in a way that is indescribable. So that, by far, is my favorite book.
But that's the beauty of education. And here’s the thing. High schools sometimes can be a little tough because you are studying things that are not necessarily relevant to you — right? Measuring the shadow of a tree, or whatever the heck you're doing. (Laughter.) I'm glad I'm not doing that anymore. (Laughter.) But the point is, is that you get through high school to get to college. And college is just this beautiful thing that I just wish every kid could have access to because that's really the place when you can dig deep into the things that you care so much about. You can spend hours reading and studying things that you are really curious about. And you don't have to do the shadow and the tree measurements if you don't want to. You can go deep.
College is also this place where you're surrounded by people just like you, your age. You will never again have an opportunity to live independently — if you get to live in a dorm — and spend your time with other people of both genders who have the same interests as you. You don't get to do that as a grownup. You don't get to do that as a parent.
Education is a luxury that you should be working towards because it is a really cool thing. And I wish that everybody was as hungry for that privilege as they were trying to get on Snapcha,t or do whatever the heck you all do. Because education is really where great things happen. It’s where your mind opens up. It’s where you mature. It’s like — I think someone once put it, for them, college was like “the training wheels to life.” And it really is. It gives you the chance to make some mistakes and not totally fall flat on your face. You've got professors who care about you.
So I want to make college exciting. I want you to understand how exciting this can be. So you're just getting through high school to get to the really fun stuff, and you never want to make that mistake of dropping out or being discouraged in high school, letting somebody throw you off of your game where you don't get to that ultimate goal, the real prize, the freedom of college.
But there are millions of girls who don't even have that opportunity. And that's what we're talking about. For the girls who do, for the girls who live in developed countries where these opportunities are there, do no squander this. Make this your reality, make this your life’s goal. There is nothing more important that you can do for yourself than getting your education. Take it from me. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for mine.
MS. LEIVE: I’m seeing here that girls from Cambodia are tuning in. And they have a question for both Mrs. Obama and for Yara.
Saporan (ph) writes: “My name is Saporan. I live in Takeo Province in Cambodia, and I’m 17 years old. In many of our communities, parents don't see a daughter’s education as a priority, especially when compared to their sons. They believe that domestic duties are more valuable for girls. How do you address that in your lives?”
So this is a similar issue that we talked about before. But really the question is, do some of those same prejudices and stereotypes hold true even in this country? And how do you cope?
MS. SHAHIDI: I feel like they most definitely hold true. And it's something funny that we run into all the time in television, in which you get these characters that basically can fill a gender stereotype of, like, yes, you’ll be the side, peripheral teenager only on your phone, and you will never be engaged. (Laughter.) And you're just going to walk right through the room.
MS. LEIVE: Why do I feel like you've read a lot of those scripts? (Laughter.)
MS. SHAHIDI: Yes, I have. And these stereotypes hold true to all sorts of different pieces of our identity — so as a teenager, as a girl, as a person of color. And what’s so interesting about it is that I, even with my character Zoey, had to prove — I have to start by saying this is a very privileged experimentation that I had here in figuring out how to expand my character and how she would be more representative of true human nature. And that was through throwing my phone in the middle of a scene, because I was going to be engaged in this conversation, especially given that in this episode somebody was choking on our counter. I was like, I don't think I’d be on my phone right now.
And part of it is just by understanding and appreciating that we're all full humans. And while it may have — I think being the practical person that I am and the person that's so obsessed with history, I always break it down to how our society has evolved, and how sometimes as soon as we became a hunting-gathering society, then there was this need for domestic work because all of a sudden it was like not everybody could do this work. So understand this work was so difficult that they had to find people to go do this work.
And so it wasn’t from this place of, well, I guess this is all you’re worth, and you're only worth going into — it’s more than, oh, you belong in the house. It’s basically understanding that we are so powerful and we are so special and important that we can do more than that and that we have evolved. We are an evolved society. And we have gone past those days. So rather than being the person in the house, I’m going to be the person that creates the technology to make all the housework easier.
MS. LEIVE: Oh, that sounds great. Do that.
We have time for one last question from one of our watch parties. This is from the one that's happening at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, right here in the U.S. Eleven-year-old Kendal (ph), who is watching with her sixth grade class, heard from the girls in Tanzania and wants to know if you could tell girls in the U.S. one thing about life in Tanzania, what would it be? What do you want American girls to know about Tanzania?
So, Tanzania, what would that one thing be?
Q Thank you for that question. Before we answer her question, I just want to point out that before we went live we were speaking on what you said about these systems, our education structures, and how we feel like sometimes we have an overload of work. And I couldn’t answer that better that the goal is to get to college. So thank you for just answering that straight on. That's amazing.
I’ve got Esther with me right now who is going to answer the question from Tennessee. So, Esther, take the mic.
Q Hey, hello, Michelle.
MRS. OBAMA: Hi, sweetie. How are you?
Q I’m fine. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. I’m Esther from Ruba Girls High School (ph). I’m 18 years of age. And I’m a Tanzanian girl born in a family of five children.
Well, before coming to Ruba Girls High School, I used to study Mabini High School (ph), which is a day school. I had to walk a very long distance to get to school. And when I woke up in the morning, it had to be very early in the morning so that I would get to school. Sometimes I had to face challenges on the way, such as the bus conductors were on strike and it was hard to get to the bus. And students were not well considered because we're paying less than the parents.
One thing I would like to tell the girls in the U.S. is that we need to stick to education because through education you get that bigger dream, the dream of being very big leaders in the world. For example, taking myself as an example, I’m the head girl in my school. I’m having the dream of being a very big leader in the future. So by becoming the head girl, I think that in the future I may become more than even the head girl.
So, girls, through this bigger dream, we can make it better than here. So I would like to tell the girls they should stick to education, and education is the only passport to their future, since the future belongs to those who prepare for it today.
So in Tanzania education, we face challenges, but you should never let this (inaudible.) We should face challenges and learn how to overcome those challenges, because what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. Thank you. (Applause.)
MRS. OBAMA: Well said.
MS. LEIVE: So, Mrs. Obama, Yara, this was a thrill to have you with us today. I wonder if before we close, you can just leave us with one thought. You've got teenagers all around the world, teenage girls watching. If you can go back and tell your 16-year-old or 15-year-old self one thing — I know that's ancient history for you, yes.
MRS. OBAMA: — like yesterday. (Laughter.)
MS. LEIVE: Yes, if you could tell your 16-year-old self one thing, one piece of advice, what would it be?
MS. SHAHIDI: Well, one, that education is so much more than the grade. But it is about access to experiences and access to the ability to pursue your dream.
And for me I would have to say that Yara, don't stress out about chemistry. You’ll end up getting great grades in it anyway. And also that we have a lot of work to do, Yara. And it’s more than just finishing this class, but making sure other people have the ability to finish the classes that they want to finish.
MRS. OBAMA: My advice to girls is always this — and this is what I tell my daughters every day — do not be afraid to fail, because that oftentimes is the thing that keeps us as women and girls back, because we think we have to be right. We think we have to be perfect. We think that we can't stumble. And the only way you succeed in life, the only way you learn is by failing. It’s not the failure; it’s what you do after you fail. Do you let it each you up? Do you quit? Do you give up? Or do you let it bolster you? Does it serve as the challenge in your mind to do more, to take some risks, to step outside of your comfort zone?
And the last thing that I do want to say to all girls is that be supportive of each other. I just can't say this enough. We have to be our best friends — each other. That means we cannot be catty. We cannot compete and see one person’s failure as our success. We can all rise together. We can all win.
And we're sometimes taught in our societies that we have to compete and we have to hold each other back in order for one of us to succeed. That is not true. We need each other. And all over the world, we have to be a team of women and girls who love each other and value each other and cherish one another. Because if we don't cherish each other, no one else will.
So let’s start there and start working together, and find a way that we're going to lift up some other girl in our lives. Maybe it’s a little sister, a neighbor. But you can be a mentor today. So do that. Do that work now. Get in the habit of that.
All right? You all with me? You all have to be my soldiers in this, right? (Applause.)
MS. SHAHIDI: If anyone ever needs a pep talk, find me on Twitter. I am so good at pep talks.
MS. LEIVE: So you heard that. We're on a team and Mrs. Obama is on the team with us way past January.
MRS. OBAMA: That's right. I’m going to be here. And I’m going to be looking for each and every — I want to hear the stories of what you've done. I want you to tweet, text, whatever the heck you do. (Laughter.) I’ll find a way to hear from you. But I want to hear about the stories that come from these conversations. So I’m looking forward to it.
MS. LEIVE: Well, we need to get you off the stage to write Yara’s college recommendation. That's important work. (Laughter.) They are really talking about this.
That is all the time we have. I want to thank the students around the world for participating in this global conversation honoring the International Day of the Girl.
I also want to thank our phenomenal friends here in D.C., Rowan Blanchard, Yara Shahidi, and First Lady Michelle Obama. (Applause.) Or as she was called earlier in the program, First Lady of the World Michelle Obama. (Laughter.)
Remember that you can always find out more about Let Girls Learn at letgirlslearn.gov and the Girl Project at Glamour.com.
Here’s to the power of girls not just today, but every day. Thank you. (Applause.)
12:45 P.M. EDT