Discussion with the First Lady, Secretary of Education John King, Tyler Oakley, Jidenna, and Rachel McKenzie Scott at the Reach Higher Beating the Odds Summit
11:14 A.M. EDT
MR. OAKLEY: Thank you all for joining us this morning. (Applause.) I am so excited to be here. You all are -- everyone is so excited, it’s so cute.
MRS. OBAMA: They’re all excited.
MR. OAKLEY: Everyone is excited. Like I said, this is the third annual, and it has just gotten bigger and better every year. We have an incredible panel of inspiring people that we will be chatting with all morning. And I got to say, I am I think most excited to see this many people here. There are over 130 college-bound students who have beat the odds, who are redefining success, who are inspiring so many in their own communities. And I just look out into the crowd and I see the future, and that is the coolest feeling. Like I just am giddy.
So thank you for indulging me for a second.
MRS. OBAMA: The future looks good, doesn’t it? It looks good.
MR. OAKELY: Yeah, it's a good look. You all look cute. (Laughter.)
MS. SCOTT: College looks good on you.
MR. OAKLEY: So I do see that you all have your phones, so please feel free to tweet with the hashtag #BeatingTheOdds.
MRS. OBAMA: Yeah. You guys know how to do that right?
MR. OAKLEY: Get it trending. I believe in you. And we are actually livestreaming right now from a camera -- there are 30 in the room, but some -- right there. We are livestreaming, so hello to the people watching at home. Thank you for joining us. And tweet along while you’re at your computer. I want to know what you all think.
So to begin, to kick things off, I think we should maybe introduce ourselves. (Laughter.) Some of you might know some people up here, but why don’t we start at the end, maybe -- introduce yourself, what you do, and why do you think it’s important for us to be up here sharing our stories and to be here at this event today.
SECRETARY KING: Hello, everybody. I’m John King, the U.S. Secretary of Education. I’m thrilled to be here, because my job is to make sure that folks get to college, and not just get to college, but through college to graduation. And so I’m here to support you. I think events like today are really important because college -- getting to college and staying in college through to graduation sometimes can be challenging, and sometimes there are obstacles in the way. It can be hard. And it’s important for us to all remind each other that success is possible.
I was a kid who grew up in New York City. I lost both my parents when I was a kid -- my mom when I was eight, my dad when I was 12. And it’s only because teachers and mentors convinced me to stay hopeful, convinced me that better things were possible that I’m alive today, that I’m even sitting here today. And so if, together, all of us can send that message to people throughout our society that school can change lives, then this will be a good event.
So, thanks. (Applause.)
JIDENNA: Well, my name is Jidenna. (Applause.) I need to bring you all with me everywhere. (Laughter.) I’m here because I -- when I first came to the U.S. -- I’m originally from Nigeria. And when I --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Woo!
JIDENNA: Yeah. (Laughter.) You can always count on Nigerians being everywhere. (Laughter.) When I originally came to the U.S., my mother came with a couple hundred dollars to her name, and we had -- I didn’t know we were struggling because she hid that from me. But it was definitely a struggle to get through life and get through school. And the thing that got me to where I am now, though, is not just talent, it’s not just a hit record, but it actually was my education.
There’s not a lot of artists that you know that stay in school, stay through school. And what allowed me to kind of cut through the mold and cut through was my ability to -- I guess all the skills that I learned in school, the ability to present. I have a network now across the music industry and whatnot, and these are things that you don’t hear a lot with artists. Often, it’s “dropped out of school, now we’re dumb rich.” (Laughter.) For me, it’s a different story.
And so I’m here to kind of share my struggles and share how I got through life. And hopefully, some of you can take a little bit from that story.
MRS. OBAMA: And, Jidenna, just by the way, where did you got to school?
JIDENNA: I went to Stanford University. (Applause.)
MRS. OBAMA: He just left that out.
MR. OAKLEY: Casual. Super casual.
MS. SCOTT: Hi, guys. My name is Rachel McKenzie Scott. I’m from Washington State. I currently attend the University of Washington in Seattle. I’ve been a Washington State foster youth for about seven years. I’m in Washington State’s Foster Until 21 program that I voluntarily entered after I turned 18. I entered foster care when I was 12 years old, after the death of my mother and the abandonment by my father.
Myself and my four other siblings went to different placements, but we all decided to persevere, and the three older of my siblings have all gone to and graduated from college. I’m currently attending, and then my little sister is looking towards attending college not this fall, but the next coming fall.
And so, since being in college, I’ve done a lot of things, had a lot of experiences. I’m currently studying oceanography and marine biology. I’m working to study ocean conservation and coastal restoration. And so those are just a couple of things I’m working on right now. (Applause.)
MRS. OBAMA: Just a few things. Hi, everybody, I’m Michelle Obama. (Applause.) And welcome to the White House. (Laughter.) Well, I’m here because of you all, and the millions of kids like you all out there in this country -- because I was one of you.
You guys probably know my background. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. My parents didn’t go to --
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Woo hoo!
MRS. OBAMA: South Side, yes! (Laughter.) My parents didn’t go to college, and I was one of those kids who was not picked out by my counselors to go to some of the top schools. In fact, when I applied to my alma mater, Princeton, when I was in high school, my counselor told me I was reaching too high. And I know everybody in here has heard something like that before.
But I am here today because of my education. I think I’m pretty smart. I think I’m pretty clever. But there’s a lot that you hone in on when you finish your education. So there is nothing more important that you all can do for yourselves than get your education, however you have to do it.
So we started Reach Higher, we started all these wonderful initiatives because we wanted to make sure that kids like you, who are like me, got all the support that you needed to achieve your dreams. And having you here at the White House is one of greatest honors that we have, because we want to show you just how special you are by giving you a day here with a lot of people and a lot of resources.
And I hope you all listen and take it in, and then come back and keep sharing that story and helping other kids like you do the same thing.
So, welcome. It's good to see you guys. You look good. (Applause.)
MR. OAKLEY: Hi, I'm Tyler. I'm moderating today. My name is Tyler Oakley. I am a YouTuber.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Whoo!
MR. OAKLEY: Yes, the Internet.
MRS. OBAMA: Go, Internet. (Laughter.)
MR. OAKLEY: I grew up in Michigan. I went to Michigan State University. Anybody from Michigan? Hey! Okay. Yes, hello. Go Green, maybe. Or, Go Blue. I don't know. I currently live in L.A. But I wouldn't have been able to do anything that I do now in the creative field had I not gotten my education. And I see a lot of people that might pursue an alternate kind of career, but I still think education got me to where I am today. I studied communication and digital marketing, and I use that every single day of my life. And it's super important. And I thank my educators and I wouldn't be here without them.
But moving forward, we want to hear a little bit from you, now that you know a little bit about us. I know that we have questions from all over the country, from you guys, and some from the audience today. So our first question is going to be coming from Sarah Hendricks -- maybe. There you are.
Q Mrs. Obama --
MRS. OBAMA: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q What is the best piece of advice you have for a student who will be beginning college in the fall?
MRS. OBAMA: Well, I have a lot of advice. That's why we're here. (Laughter.) Here’s the first thing. Most of you guys will go to a school where they’ll have a summer program -- I know I did at Princeton -- and it was a huge advantage. A program where you came on campus a little bit earlier, got to stay in the dorms, take some classes. That was a lifesaver for me, because when I showed up at Princeton’s campus I had never been on a college campus in any meaningful way. I never slept in a dorm.
Are you going to Princeton?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes.
MRS. OBAMA: Are you going to the summer program?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes.
MRS. OBAMA: Nice. (Applause.) It's going to be a great thing. And now I hear you can get credits for some of the courses. That wasn’t true when I was going. You just took the classes.
But you got a chance to make friends before the campus got full. You got to learn the campus, meet professors, develop some relationships and some bonds so by the time the campus got full, you guys -- you’ll already be set. So I urge you to look into those kind of programs if you haven't. That's one.
Now, when you get to school and classes start, I want you to take it seriously. So here’s what you got to do. You got to go to class. You got to go to class every single day, and be fairly organized. And I want you to think about -- when you think about cutting or sleeping in or skipping -- because nobody is going to be paying any attention to you. Nobody is going to wake you up. Nobody is going to tell you that you missed anything. You're going to feel really free. And when you decide to sleep in, I want you to multiply how much money you're spending by every class you take, and you will see how much money you're wasting.
Plus, when you miss class things just -- they just build. You get behind a little bit, then you're behind a lot. Then you miss something. You just don't want to let these little-bitty choices pile up on you. So you can't procrastinate in college. Because, again, nobody is going to be checking on you. So you’ve got to be organized. You’ve got to do your reading.
And when you think about it, it's all manageable. I mean, you guys are going to have a couple of classes a day maybe a few days a week. I mean -- and the rest of the time, if you're not working -- which I had a work-study job -- but even with that, the rest of the time is yours. You have plenty of time to focus on your studies and get everything done.
Here’s the other thing I'll tell you. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Nobody gets through college on their own. And a lot of kids like us think that somehow, if we need help, that we miss something. But let me tell you, wealthy kids, kids who are used to college, they are so used to asking for help and getting tutors. They are the first ones to be like, Mommy, I need a tutor. And they will get one. We're the ones who sit back and struggle and feel embarrassed because we don’t understand something. Ask for help. You will all have great resources, writing support, tutors. Get to know the folks on your campus. And through these summer programs, if you go, you'll get to meet everybody.
The last thing I want to say is, many of you, if not most of you, will be on financial aid. Do not just sign up for financial aid. Don’t just sign a line. You have to really understand the commitments that you're making. So have somebody read through the paperwork for you. Because when you take out a loan, that's real money that you owe, plus interest. And you don’t want to wait until year four, or maybe year five, depending upon what plan you're on, to look back and see how much debt you've accumulated. You should understand the debt that you're taking on and not be surprised at the end.
And your financial aid money is not for stereo equipment, it's not for shoes. Girls, it's not for getting your hair done. Because I know too many -- I was an associate dean at the University of Chicago, and so many first-generation students couldn’t finish a semester because they ran out of money. You're going to get a big fat check, and somebody is going to hand it to you, and you're going to put it in the bank. And that doesn’t mean you can pay mom's electricity bill or send money home. Because when you spend that money, it's gone. The financial aid folks are not going to give you more money because you misspent it. So you’ve got to take that seriously. It would be a shame if you didn’t finish -- once you got in and did the work, and then you couldn’t finish a semester or a quarter because you ran out of money because you didn’t many your money.
So take your financial aid seriously. Get to know your financial aid counselors. And keep track. And, you guys, this is grown-up time. So it's time to be fully responsible for everything you do. So that's some advice.
MR. OAKLEY: Great advice.
MRS. OBAMA: I could obviously go on.
MR. OAKLEY: Rachel, do you have an advice you want to share? Because you're in the thick of it right now.
MS. SCOTT: Oh, yes.
MR. OAKLEY: You are there.
MS. SCOTT: My biggest piece of advice is a bit of a cliché. I'm sure you've all heard the say, "don’t sweat the small stuff." But that is one of the most important things when you begin your first and your second, and I'm coming up on my third year of college -- don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t sweat feeling embarrassed because you don’t know as much as the other kids. There's opportunities I skipped out on because I was embarrassed that I wasn’t as smart as the other kids.
I grew up in a very small rural town in the northeast corner of Washington State that had less than 200 people in it. I moved schools almost five or six times. I was in speech class up until I was in like fifth or sixth grade, and the only reason I left speech class was because I moved. I had so many gaps in my education, and I was so embarrassed because of it. It wasn’t my fault that I was missing education, it was my parents' fault. But I was the one who felt the embarrassment because of it. So I didn’t ask for tutors when I needed it, and I didn’t ask for an extension on an assignment when I really needed it.
And so don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t sweat feeling embarrassed or anything like that. Don't sweat missing a party because you're studying for an exam that you have the next day or two days from now. There will be other parties.
MR. OAKLEY: There will be more parties. (Laughter.)
MS. SCOTT: There is. The University of Washington has a very large Greek system, and we have parties on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays. (Laughter.) If it's a holiday, there will be one on Monday. If it's a random day, there will be one on Wednesday. There's at least three or four a week. And I don’t even participate because that's not really what I like to do. I like to go hiking and camping and stuff like that. But there will be parties. There will be other parties. There will be bigger parties. There will be smaller parties. Don’t sweat missing it. That education that you're getting, the couple more hours that you could study, the better nights sleep that you would get --
MR. OAKLEY: Sleep, yes.
MS. SCOTT: -- the money that you would save by not paying for an Uber to get there or whatnot, like, that all matters in the long run. Don’t worry about not having your hair done or having nice clothes. Like, I've gone to school in the same pair of yoga pants for like three days in a row because I didn’t feel like doing laundry yet, but nobody cares.
MR. OAKLEY: Don't judge.
MS. SCOTT: Don't judge! (Laughter.)
MR. OAKLEY: You will be there.
MRS. OBAMA: Don't judge. I used to buy underwear because I didn’t do my laundry. (Laughter.)
MS. SCOTT: Those things happen.
MRS. OBAMA: I used to go -- it's like, I just need seven more days. I'd go buy seven more pairs of underwear. (Laughter.)
MS. SCOTT: Probably because she was studying and didn’t want to do her laundry. (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: That's right.
MS. SCOTT: But don’t worry about not having the other clothes, because it was a very hard lesson for me to learn because I grew up very, very poor, like we didn't have money. We went to two different food banks. I used to take all my hand-me-down clothes from my older siblings. Sometimes I didn't know when we were going to eat. We didn't have the best diets. Like, I learned very early on that I didn't have money and that I didn't have as much money as everyone else.
And then eventually I got to high school and I went to a high school that the man who owns Nordstrom, his granddaughter went to my school. And so I was going to school with kids who are so much more wealthy than I might ever be. And I had to learn very quickly that I can't worry about that stuff, because it's not my fault and that stuff doesn't matter in the end. That stuff doesn't build character, so don't sweat not having it. Don't worry about it.
Don't worry if they make fun of you because you don't have it, because I've faced bullying and a lot of things throughout my life because I was always the weird kid, or I became, at the age of 12, I became the kid with dead parents. And nobody knows how to treat a kid with dead parents, so I just didn't tell people. And I felt embarrassed because nobody remembered how to treat me as a human being. That wasn't a fault of my own. That was a fault of others for not learning to be compassionate and helping someone in times of need.
So don't sweat other people, and don't sweat the circumstances. Just focus on you, and focus on getting through college and getting yourself the things that you need to succeed. You need your books. You need your studies. Some of you may need tutors. Some of you may need jobs. Some of you may need financial aid. Work on getting those things.
And once you've found a place of solace and you've found a place where you can be okay, then worry about the other stuff, because that's when you have time. (Applause.)
MR. OAKLEY: That's great. That's great advice. (Applause.) Our next question comes from another one of you in the audience -- Jasmine Brooks (ph) -- somewhere?
MRS. OBAMA: Jasmine -- hey, girl.
MR. OAKLEY: There you are. Hi, Jasmine.
MR. OAKLEY: A microphone is coming your way.
Q My name is Jasmine Brooks, and I am a freshman English major at Fisk University. And my question is for Jidenna. If you could go back to your younger self, what advice would you give him? (Laughter.)
MR. OAKLEY: Great question.
JIDENNA: That is a great question.
MS. SCOTT: I like that giggle right there.
MRS. OBAMA: Tell us the truth. (Laughter.)
JIDENNA: You want the truth, Jasmine? All right. Well, I think if I was to go back to my 17-year-old self or 18-year-old self, the one thing that I learned in college actually was that you're going to reach -- you may reach tremendous highs and tremendous lows. I reached rock bottom, like, halfway through college. And it was -- because of all the pressure that I think we're talking about right now -- the pressure to learn how to budget, the pressure to really abandon everything that you ever learned. You don't have a comfort zone anymore. You don't have your neighborhood, you don't have your family with you. You have to figure out for yourself who you are now in two to four years, and then go out in the world and be somebody.
For me, I think it was important for me to learn that I needed to take some of that pressure off and just focus on the fact that I believed that I could make it through. That belief is what's going to get you through. However it is -- if it's spiritual for you, if it's a mental thing -- that's going to get you through.
So for me, it was that. And I will say that the high point of it was meeting friends that I still have to this day. You will meet the friends that you'll probably have forever. I don't even really talk to some of my high school friends anymore, because the people I met in college were some of the best people I ever met in my life.
There's a proverb that says “You are your friends.” It's not that you are like your friends -- you literally are your friends. They're mirrors to you. So when we talk about study habits and we talk about proper planning and organization -- just look around at who’s around you, and that will tell you where you are in life. If there's something you don't like in your friends, chances are that something is in you.
And the last thing I'll say -- and this is I think the crux and the center point for me in college -- what I'd tell myself again -- and I did follow this advice -- was that you are investing in your future. So college should serve you. You don’t serve your college.
I remember my father didn’t want me to be -- I was like, dad -- I was trying to be a rapper and a basketball player, Dad. (Laughter.) And I really was. I was Varsity captain. I thought I had everything going for me. I wasn’t listening to nobody. And my dad was like, "Uh-uh, you can't make money from music. You have to be a doctor, a lawyer, engineer. Something that's going to do something for this world. Music doesn’t do anything." And I had to fight that -- (laughter) -- his passion, and fight the society that I was from. Because every time my uncle sees me, he would check my backpack for grades. Like, that's Nigerian culture, whether rich or poor. And that's a beautiful part about it, but it also adds to that pressure that I was talking about.
But if you really know that success comes to just those who don’t give up, that's all it is. Just keep going when you reach that low, and hone in on that purpose. And from there, you'll make it through for sure. That's the advice that I would give myself. And I was lucky enough to receive that advice about halfway through my college career. (Applause.)
MR. OAKLEY: Our next question comes from Giovanni Mesa. There you are. Hello.
Q Good morning. I am Giovanni Mesa, and I live in Los Angeles, and I will be attending Penn State in the fall. (Applause.) Thank you. And my question is for Secretary King. So there are many students that are in college right now and want to finish college, but part of the way through they can't afford it. So are there any ways for, I guess, you or anyone to help those students finish college and achieve that goal? And do you encourage students to continue to apply for scholarships in college?
SECRETARY KING: It's a great and important question. So let me first say, college is the best investment that you can make. And so it may seem daunting while you're in college, but the lifetime returns are tremendous.
Second, you’ve got to fill out the FAFSA form, right, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Everybody has done that once, but you've got to do it every year. You've got to fill out the FAFSA form because that form is really your access to not only federal financial aid, but also state financial aid, scholarship programs, awards from your university. So you’ve got to fill that out every year.
You’ve got to get to know the financial aid officer at your college, and you got to ask that same question of the financial aid officer at the college. And then, as you think about student debt -- and some students will have to borrow -- you got to be smart about it. And all the points that the First Lady made about being careful about how much you borrow, and figuring out how you're going to plan to pay that back.
And then know that when you graduate, there's public service loan forgiveness if you choose a career in public service. There's teacher loan forgiveness, and I hope some of you in this room will become teachers and take advantage of that. We also have a program called Income-Driven Repayment, where we cap the amount that you have to pay on your loans at 10 percent of your income.
So we're doing a lot of work to try to make sure that college is affordable. But it's worth the investment. And you just got to be aggressive about trying to figure out all the possible sources of funding while you're in school.
MR. OAKLEY: And one thing I would add is -- I mean, you were talking about it a little bit, of working your way while you're there. You do have some free time, not -- you shouldn’t be working more than you're studying. Like, I was a telemarketer. I also was an RA, and being an RA in the dorms will drastically reduce how much you have to pay. So little things like working in the cafeteria. Everybody -- you'll meet some of your best friends there, and that's the best thing. Like, when I was a telemarketer, I met so many of my best friends there because we were all paying our way through college. And so you kind of meet the same people that are in the same boat and help yourself along the way.
MS. SCOTT: And if I could add one thing, is to read the scholarships you get. So apply for the FAFSA; it's moved to October 1st this year instead of back in the winter time. So you'll most likely get your state need grant. There's the Pell grant that you get from the U.S. government. But if you get any type of scholarship, read what it is.
And so there are certain scholarships that I get that give me a certain amount of money, but then there's a little clause that, if you are still struggling and still need help, then I can contact my financial aid officers who will then contact the person who gave me that scholarship, and maybe -- there’s actually a specific scholarship that I get for $2,000. And if I need extra help or funds, there’s an extra $1,500 set aside every year just in case I need that money. And I get certain scholarships from places like College Success Foundation.
And so if you get to know the people who give you the scholarships, they’re going to be willing to give you more money. And so if for some reason all of my scholarships or financial aid or loans couldn't cover it all, or if I ran out of money partway through a quarter, then I got to know these people, and I networked, and I built relationships, and I could talk to them and be like, hey, I have special circumstances -- I ended up having to pay a hospital bill, or I ended up having to move and pay more rent money than I was used to and didn’t budget for that, or there were these bills, x, y, and z that I didn’t anticipate -- is there more money that is possibly out there that I could write a scholarship to try and win? Or is there work that I can do for your organization to try and earn that extra money that I needed?
And most of these places will work with you and will help you to get you through college. Because they didn’t give you that first bit of money to see you waste it and then drop out of college. They gave you that money because they wanted to see you succeed. And so they still want to see you succeed and they want to see you get all the way through. So just go back and ask.
MR. OAKLEY: That's great. Our next question comes from Kion Douglas.
Q Hello. My name is Kion Douglas with College Summit. And I'm attending Northwest State University in the fall, majoring in optical or electrical engineering. And my question is for Rachel. Why is peer influence so powerful when it comes to academic aspiration and achievement? And how do you handle peer pressure?
MS. SCOTT: Peer influence is one of the greatest things you’ll have to deal with. And usually when you hear people say “peer pressure,” you think it's, oh, no, they’re trying to get you to do drugs or do bad things, and that's the only kind of peer pressure that exists. But that's completely false. Like Rochelle (ph) brought up earlier, she ended up doing a film thing because her friends tried to get her to do it. Her friends peer-pressured her into trying to do a film thing.
(End of open press segment.)
11:44 P.M. EDT