Remarks by The First Lady at Let Girls Learn Event in London, UK
The Mulberry School
London, United Kingdom
11:40 A.M. GMT
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you so much. (Applause.) Oh, warm welcome indeed. Well, hello, everyone. I want to thank Dr. Ogden for that wonderful introduction and for her outstanding leadership at this school.
I also want to thank all of the teachers, the staff who create such an amazing environment for these young women. This is truly a model, and it’s been a privilege to spend time here.
I also want to thank Secretary Greening for her poignant remarks. And I also want to recognize your Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, who participated in the roundtable with me earlier today, as well as -- to our American Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Matthew Barzun, who is here. Thank you so much, Matt, for all you do.
It’s such a pleasure to arrive here in the United Kingdom as the world celebrated the 800th Magna Carta anniversary, and the impact that document has made on not just your country, but on my country and all across the globe.
But before I begin, I want to say a special hello to everyone who I know is watching this event online and on TV all around the world. I want to thank everybody out there for joining us and for paying careful attention to this important issue.
And finally, most importantly, I want to thank all of the students here -– the smart, powerful, creative, accomplished young women of Mulberry School for Girls. You all are beautiful. And your welcome was touching. (Applause.) And I’m not just talking about the girls here in the room. I also know -- I’m sending my love out to all of the girls watching from the Sports Hall -- hey. (Laughter.) We love you.
Now, I imagine that some of you might be wondering, well, why would the First Lady of the United States come here to Tower Hamlets? Why would she choose this community and this school when she could be anywhere in this city or in this entire country? And the answer is simple: I’m here because of you. I’m here because girls like you inspire me and impress me every single day. I am so proud of your passion, your diligence; as Dr. Ogden said, your grit, your determination. And I am beyond thrilled that you are working so hard to complete your education. It is so important.
And I’m here because when I look out at all of these young women, I see myself. I may come from a country that’s an ocean away, but -- I’m a bit older than you all. (Laughter.) Yes, I am. I know I don’t look it. (Laughter.) But I’m just a little older. But in so many ways, your story is my story.
For those of you who may not know much about my background, I grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago -- a neighborhood a lot like this one, where people work hard to make ends meet, but where families are tight-knit with strong values. My dad worked as a pump operator at the city water plant, and my mom stayed home to take care of me and my big brother Craig.
We lived in a really small apartment. And my brother and I shared a bedroom that was divided in half by a wooden partition, giving us each our own little, tiny rooms that fit just a twin bed and a small desk. So we didn’t have much space, but we had a whole lot of love.
And, perhaps like a lot of you, we grew up surrounded by our extended family. I had grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins living just blocks away from my family’s apartment, and my great aunt and uncle actually lived one floor below in the same apartment house. So our home was often busy with family coming and going. And because our apartment was so small, there wasn’t much privacy. I can remember how hard it was to concentrate on my homework because someone was always talking or watching TV right next to you.
I often woke up at 4:00 in the morning when the house was finally quiet just so that I could concentrate on and finish my schoolwork. I remember just dreaming of having a space of my own, away from all the family obligations that were always popping up.
As my great aunt and uncle grew older, my parents took charge of caring for them. My dad would help my uncle shave and get dressed each morning, and my mom would dash downstairs in the middle of the night to make sure that my aunt was okay. So we constantly felt the struggle to balance our family responsibilities and the schoolwork, the activities, and the goals that we had for ourselves.
And through it all, my parents fully expected us to do both -- to achieve our dreams, and be there for our family. And they also knew that a good education was the ultimate key to our success. My parents told me every day I could do anything -- I could grow up to be a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist, whatever -- but only if I worked as hard as I could to succeed in school.
I imagine that many of you have parents who give you the exact same advice. And like you, I didn’t want to let my parents down. So I worked hard in school. I read everything I could get my hands on. I did my absolute very best on every single assignment. I did everything in my power to be a good student. I dreamed of one day going to one of the best universities in America.
But despite my efforts, there were still people in my life who told me that I was setting my sights too high; that a girl like me couldn’t get into an elite university. It was like these folks were trying to put me in a little box –- a box that fit their constrained expectations of me. And after a while, I started to wonder, well, maybe I was dreaming too big. What if these folks were right?
See, back then, I didn’t know what my future held. I didn’t know that I’d be accepted to a top university. I didn’t know that I’d go on to get a law degree and become an NGO director, and a hospital executive, and, eventually, First Lady of the United States. Those kinds of achievements seemed totally out of reach when I was your age. I was just a working-class kid from a good community with limited resources.
Neither of my parents and hardly anyone in my neighborhood went to university. And I wasn’t even sure if my family could afford the tuition. I didn’t have anyone to help me study for entrance exams. And the fact that I was a girl and that I was black -- well, that certainly didn’t help things, either. When I was growing up, there were very few black women at high levels in business, or politics, or science, on TV, so I didn’t have many professional role models to look up to.
And I have a feeling that my experience might feel similar or familiar to some of you. Maybe you look at the leaders in your businesses and laboratories and government and wonder whether there’s a place for someone like you. Maybe you’ve heard about the kinds of tutors and prep courses and other advantages that wealthier students can afford, and you wonder how you ever will compete. Maybe you feel like no one’s paying attention to you, like you’re lost in the shuffle at home or in this huge city, and you wonder whether it’s worth it to even aspire to be something great. And maybe you read the news and hear what folks are saying about your religion, and you wonder if people will ever see beyond your headscarf to who you really are -– instead of being blinded by the fears and misperceptions in their own minds.
And I know how painful and how frustrating all of that can be. I know how angry and exhausted it can make you feel. But here’s the thing -- with an education from this amazing school, you all have everything -- everything -- you need to rise above all of the noise and fulfill every last one of your dreams.
And it is so important that you do that, not just for yourselves, but for all of us. Because you all have a unique perspective. You have a unique voice to add to the conversation. You know what it’s like when a family struggles to make ends meet. You know what it’s like to be overlooked and underestimated because of who you are or what you believe in or where you come from.
And the world needs more girls like you growing up to lead our parliaments and our board rooms and our courtrooms and our universities. We need you. We need people like you tackling the pressing problems we face -– climate change and poverty, violent extremism, disease.
And while all of that might sound a little daunting, I just want you to remember that you don’t have to do this alone. There are millions of people like me and my husband, Dr. Ogden, and so many leaders here in the United Kingdom and all around the world who are standing with you. We are doing everything we can to break down the barriers that stand in your way. We want to make sure that every door is open to girls like you, and not just here in England, not just in America, but in every corner of the globe. And that starts with making sure that every girl on this planet has the kinds of opportunities you all have to get the education and to succeed.
As you’ve heard, right now there are more than 62 million girls around the world who are not in school -- girls whose families don’t think they’re worthy of an education, or they can’t afford it. Girls who live too far away from the nearest school and have no transportation. Girls like Malala Yousafzai who are assaulted, kidnapped, or killed just for trying to learn.
And this isn’t just a devastating loss for these girls, it’s a devastating loss for all of us who are missing out on their promise. One of these girls could have the potential to cure cancer, or start a business that transforms an industry, or become the next president or prime minister who inspires her country. But if she never sets foot in a classroom, chances are she will never discover or fulfill that potential.
And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve traveled here to the UK –- because for so long, this country has been doing such wonderful work to support adolescent girls’ education around the world. We’ve been working hard in the United States as well, and earlier this year, the United States increased our own efforts in this area by launching, as you heard, our new initiative called Let Girls Learn to help girls in developing countries go to school, and, more importantly, stay in school.
And I am so thrilled that today, our two countries are announcing a series of new partnerships that total nearly $200 million to help girls like you all of you get the education they deserve. We’re going to be working together to support young people –- particularly adolescent girls -– in areas affected by conflict and crisis, like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Our universities and development agencies are going to team up to research ways to improve education for girls. And American Peace Corps volunteers and the UK's Campaign for Female Education are going to work together with local communities in developing countries to lift up adolescent girls’ education as well.
So I am very proud of the work that we’re doing together. And I’m especially proud to be announcing these new commitments here in London, because this city was the first stop on my very first international trip as First Lady. And during my time here, I visited with the girls from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School -– a school a lot like this one –- and I know that there are some of the students here today -- yes, there you go. (Laughter.)
And as I stood before that roomful of girls six years ago, all I could think about was how much promise they each had inside of them, how much passion and hope and intelligence each of them could bring to our world. And in many ways, those girls were the inspiration for so much of my work as First Lady -– work to give girls like them, and like you, and like those 62 million girls around the world the opportunities you deserve.
And now, today, being back here in London, looking out at all of your faces, I’m once again filled with the same feeling I had six years ago. I see a roomful of business leaders and surgeons and barristers. I see women who are going to win elections, and science competitions, and arts awards. I see leaders who will inspire folks not just here in Tower Hamlets, but all across the country and all around the world.
That’s what I see. Because I know what’s inside of girls like you and like me. I know how hard we’ll fight for our families, how deeply we care about our communities, how much of a difference we can make for those around us. And I have seen it again and again and again that what our parents told us really is true –- that if we get our education, we can do anything. We can lift up ourselves to heights we could never imagine. We can pay forward all of the love and support that our families have poured into us. And we can truly be, as Dr. Ogden says, “builders of a new day.” That is your work. That’s my hope for you.
So I want to thank you all for hosting me and making me feel so loved. I’m so proud of you. So now, we’re going to talk, okay? (Laughter.) You guys ready for some conversation?
MRS. OBAMA: Yes? Are you going to -- you’re not going to be shy?
MRS. OBAMA: All right. (Laughter.) So I’m going to invite Dr. Ogden to join me back on stage. And I also want to introduce someone to you who has been a leader for adolescent girls all around the globe, and that’s Ms. Julia Gillard.
Julia is the former Prime Minister of Australia. And today she serves as the Board Chair for the Global Partnership for Education, which means she’s working with all sorts of countries and organizations on strategies and solutions to help girls like you get the education you deserve. She is really the expert on this issue. And since we’re just getting started with Let Girls Learn, my team, we want to learn as much from folks like her as we can so that we can make the biggest impact possible.
So it’s a thrill to have her here with us today. And with that, I’m going to take my seat and we’re going to start answering your questions. How about that?
I love you all. Thank you. (Applause.)
11:57 A.M. GMT