Remarks by the First Lady at Youth Forum -- Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, Mexico
2:19 P.M. (Local)
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.) Good afternoon, and thank you so much. Thank you, Jaime, for that very kind and profound introduction. It is such a pleasure and an honor to be in this beautiful country, at this great university, with so many outstanding young people from all across Mexico.
Let me start by thanking your First Lady, Mrs. Margarita Zavala. (Applause.) I want to thank her for her tremendous kindness not just to me but to my family. She is smart. She is tough. She is passionate. And she is my friend. We’ve had a wonderful time together, both here in Mexico and during her visits to the United States. And I look forward to welcoming her and her husband, President Calderón, to Washington for a state dinner next month. And I told her to prepare to have fun. (Laughter.)
I also want to recognize the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Ambassador Pascual. And I want to thank the rector of this school, Dr. Jose Morales Orozco, for his leadership and for hosting me here today. And finally, I want to thank all of the people of this country for your incredible warmth and hospitality during my visit here. From the moment I arrived, I felt like I was entre amigos –- (laughter) -- which is only natural given the close and enduring friendship between our two nations.
Mexico is home to more U.S. citizens living abroad than anywhere else in the world, and tens of millions of Americans trace their roots right here to this country. And for generations, Mexico and the U.S. have been bound together not just by a shared border, but by shared values and aspirations -– devotion to family and to faith; a willingness to work hard and to sacrifice for our children; a commitment to democracy rooted in struggles for independence that have defined our nations.
So when it came time for me to decide where to make my first solo international trip as First Lady, the choice was clear: Mexico, por supuesto! (Applause.)
And there’s also a reason why I wanted to come here to the Ibero and speak with all of you. It’s the same reason why, when my husband travels abroad to talk about the challenges we face –- from extremism to nuclear weapons, from poverty and hunger to climate change and to pandemics –- he doesn’t just meet with presidents and prime ministers. He doesn’t just visit palaces and parliaments. He goes to schools and to universities and he meets with young people just like all of you.
And this isn’t an accident. Today, we’re seeing what has come to be called a “youth bulge” –- an explosion of the youth population in nations around the world. And here in Mexico, nearly half the population is under the age of 25. In the Middle East, it’s 60 percent. And young people between the ages of 15 and 24 alone now make up 20 percent of the world’s citizens. This is the largest group in history making the transition to adulthood.
And the fact is, is that responsibility for meeting the defining challenges of our time will soon fall to all of you. Soon, the world will be looking to your generation to make the discoveries and to build the industries that will fuel our prosperity and ensure our well-being for decades to come.
We’re going to be looking to your generation to seize the promise of clean energy to power our economies and preserve our planet for your children and your grandchildren. We’re going to be looking to your generation to find the courage and the patience to resolve the conflicts and to heal the divides that plague our world.
And I’m here today because I believe that all of you, and your peers around the world, are more ready than ever to meet these challenges. More than any generation in history, you all are able to access information and connect with one another in ways that my generation could never have imagined. With the click of a button, you can exchange thoughts on any issue with people just about anywhere in the world. You have an unprecedented ability to organize and to mobilize to challenge old assumptions, and to bridge old divides, and to find new solutions to our toughest problems.
And it is because of this immense promise that I intend to focus my international work as First Lady on engaging young people just like you all around the world.
My husband and I know all too well that meeting the challenges that we will face will depend on whether we effectively tap into your God-given potential –- whether we fully benefit from the industry and the energy and the perspectives of young people from every background and every nation. Because we know that ambition and ability are found in every corner of the globe. The question is, how do we ensure that opportunity is, too?
Now, my husband and President Calderon are working hard to rebuild our education systems, to revive our economies, and to create new opportunities for young people in both of our nations. But leaders and governments can’t shoulder this responsibility alone. Ordinary citizens must share the responsibility as well -– and that includes young people.
And it’s not just enough just to change laws and policies. We must also change our perceptions about who can and who can’t succeed. We have to confront the wrong and outdated ideas and assumptions that only certain young people deserve to be educated; or that girls aren’t as capable as boys; or that some young people are less worthy of opportunities because of their religion or disability or ethnicity or socioeconomic class -- because we have seen time and again that potential can be found in some of the most unlikely places.
My husband and I are living proof of that. We both came from very modest backgrounds. Our families were not wealthy. My parents never went to college. My husband never really knew his father and was raised by a young single mother who struggled to pay the bills.
And like many kids with backgrounds like ours, we faced challenges: the sting of low expectation; the constant doubts about whether we could succeed, and whether we were even worth the effort. You see, back when we were young, no one could have predicted that one day we would become the President and First Lady of the United States of America.
But we were lucky and more importantly we were blessed. We had families who believed in us. We had teachers who pushed us. We had universities that saw our potential and gave us opportunity. And we worked as hard as we could. We learned as much as we could. And as a result, we were prepared and we were poised to pursue our dreams.
And our stories are not unique. They’re the stories of countless young people in Mexico, in the United States, and around the world who’ve worked hard and they’ve defied the odds. They’re the stories of young people throughout history who’ve succeeded not because of their trust fund, or pedigree, or their test scores, but because of challenges that tested and motivated them and made them who they are, and because someone somewhere believed in them and helped them believe in themselves.
When he was orphaned at a young age and sought work as a servant, no one could have imagined that Benito Juarez would one day become one of Mexico’s greatest presidents. But thanks to a Franciscan friar who helped him join a seminary and get an education, he was able to realize his gifts.
One of my country’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was born in a one-room log cabin in the woods –- but was lucky enough to have a teacher who taught him how to write and debate.
And then there’s Joan of Arc, the daughter of a peasant farmer who tried to persuade anyone who would listen that she could rescue the French army from defeat. And when a prince finally believed her, that’s exactly what she did.
You see, throughout our world history, it has so often been that unlikely hero, that unusual perspective, that improbable journey that has been the key to our progress. So when we dismiss any of our young people, when we fail to tap into their potential, we risk losing their promise. And just think of the inventions and the cures that are never discovered, the great works of art and literature that are never created, the great acts of courage and leadership that never grace this world.
But this isn’t just about discovering those few extraordinary folks who still or will change the course of history. It’s also about breaking down barriers across the globe so that all our young people can learn and work and be productive members of our societies. It’s about seeking the perspectives and experiences of young people from every background –- those new ideas that make our businesses more productive, our cultures more vibrant, and our governments more open and free.
But in order to do this –- in order to open up opportunities for more young people –- the truth is that those of you who already have a seat at the table must do your part to make room for others who don’t. Young people around the world must reach out to help others realize their talents and make their voices heard.
Now, I understand that in these difficult economic times here in Mexico, the United States, and around the world, many young people are struggling and nothing is guaranteed. And even young people like those of you who have the privilege of attending a university like this may be feeling a bit uncertain about your futures.
Some of you may be worried about whether you’ll even be able to build careers of your own. And you may be tempted -- tempted to focus solely on your individual success, take your diploma, get you the best job you can, and never look back.
But before you do that, I hope that you’ll just think, just for a moment, think about the mission statement of this university, and that is to prepare students, and I quote, “to engage in service to others and develop and spread knowledge to achieve a free, fair, united and productive society.”
I hope that you’ll think of those words from the Bible -– that to whom much is given, much is required. And I hope that you’ll think of all those who’ve shaped our history by heeding these words.
Imagine if Mahatma Ghandi had led a comfortable existence as a lawyer instead of leading the struggle for the rights of his countrymen and his nation’s independence –- work he started when he was in his twenties. Imagine if Nelson Mandela had chosen a life of leisure as the son of a tribal leader instead of joining the ANC at the age of 24, and enduring decades behind bars to end apartheid. Imagine if Mother Teresa had never answered her calling and ventured into the streets of Calcutta to tend to those in desperate need.
Now, I’m not saying that you have to take a vow of poverty or lead a movement. But I am asking you to do something -– whether through your career, or as a volunteer –- do something to ensure that other young people have the opportunities they deserve as well. That’s what folks like you are doing every day all across the globe, and right here in Mexico.
Alberto Salvador from Guanajuato was born deaf and was at first denied admission to elementary school because of his disability. But he completed high school with honors, got a degree in the United States, and then returned here to Mexico where he mentors deaf children and will soon be starting his job as a teacher.
And then there’s Mariana Vazquez del Mercado, who’s finishing law school at Universidad Panamericana. And she spends hours volunteering in a free legal clinic and she also directs an organization that builds housing for struggling families. Of her work, she says -- and this is a quote: “The goal is to show that despite being young, we are sufficiently responsible and aware.”
Alberto Irezabal, who graduated from the Ibero last year, used his service project to help an indigenous community in Chiapas better produce and sell their locally grown coffee. And of his work, he says -- this is also a quote: “I believe we have a responsibility to see that our projects succeed, not just for ourselves, but for our country.”
Each and every one of these young people is working to break down barriers and to open doors. Each of them is giving others the chances they’ve had to succeed. But also let’s be clear –- I’m not just talking to the university students who are here today. I am also talking to young people here in Mexico, and the United States, and around the world who feel like they have no place at universities like this.
And I have met so many young people in so many places who have so much to offer, but because of where they’re born, or the family they’re born into, or the circumstances of their lives, they begin to doubt themselves. They begin to feel like they don’t belong, or they’re not prepared, or they won’t measure up –- so they shouldn’t even try.
Now while I was fortunate to have so many opportunities in my own life, I can certainly understand those feelings. See, when I first went to college, I was filled with self-doubt. I was convinced that everyone else was smarter than I was –- and I felt like I just didn’t fit in. But I soon realized that I was just as capable, and had just as much to contribute, as my classmates. All I needed was a little confidence in myself to make that happen.
Now, it’s true, it is so true, that some of you might have to work a lot harder to get what you want. You might face many more obstacles and setbacks. But I want you to know that you belong in places like this just as much as anyone. You have just as much to offer as anyone else. All you have to do is belief in yourself. If you refuse to give up, then there is nothing –- there is nothing you can’t accomplish.
And I hope that all of you, all of you here, when you encounter hardships and when you start to get discouraged -- and I guarantee you, you will -- I hope that you’ll think about young people like you all around the world who have toiled in laboratories and libraries, in factories and fields, who have marched and fought and bled to make our world a better place.
I hope you’ll think about the young people two centuries ago who risked everything they had for Mexico’s independence. I hope you’ll think about the young people in America who fought to ensure that all citizens, no matter their gender or the color of their skin, were treated equally under the law. You and I, we’re here today because of them.
And finally, I hope you’ll think about young people like Sonia Kim. She was a young woman I met yesterday during my visit in Haiti. Sonia works at the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince. And like so many people in Haiti, she has been working around the clock on the earthquake relief efforts.
I want to read you an e-mail that she sent me. This e-mail inspired my trip there. It’s inspired my trip here. She wrote: “We are exhausted, traumatized and heart-broken. But we choose to stay here and work. We choose to stay because we love Haiti and its people. We choose to stay because we believe in our duty to help the people here in their greatest hour of need. We choose to stay because we believe in our mission. We choose to stay because we still hold out hope… for recovery and renewal… and for a Haiti built back better than before.”
And I hope that every single one of you, and young people across the globe, will take up that work –- the work of helping others in need, the work of building stronger nations and a better world, because if we’re going to tackle the challenges of our time -– if we’re going to make our world safer and healthier and more prosperous and more free -– we are going to need the passion and the daring and the creativity of every last one of you.
We’ll need you to work as hard as you can, and do as much as you can, driven by the belief that has always summed up the spirit of our youth -- three simple words: Si, se puede –- Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Thank you. God bless. (Applause.)
2:39 P.M. (Local)