On our way to the Winspear Opera House for the Young Women’s Leadership Conference, Sarah Visokay ’20 and I had talked about how amazing meeting Michelle Obama would be. I instantly dismissed the idea. The other Ursuline students and I would get to see the First Lady but only from the 300s of the American Airlines Center, and that was enough for me. After reading Becoming, Obama’s memoir, I felt that I knew her personally. Instead of simply seeing the former First Lady as an inspiring but distant celebrity, I now understood her journey which began humbly and not without many trials and tears but ultimately resulting in her becoming who she is today.
In total, there were 150 high school girls from across the Greater Dallas area attending the conference which preceded the main event of the day—seeing Obama speak at her book tour event for her memoir. Ursuline brought 20 students: ‘19 Kerry Gleim, ‘19 Madeline Fynes, ‘19 Alexandra Long, ‘19 Isabelle Domine, ‘19 Audrey Peterman, ‘19 Athena Bruess, ‘19 Caroline Zagielski, ‘19 Elise Welch, ‘20 Abigail Sizemore, ‘20 Sarah Visokay, ‘20 Ashlyn Gage, ‘20 Catherine Moore, ‘20 Killian Finn, ‘20 Olivia Hartin, ‘20 Monica Aguilera, ‘20 Meg Lemler, ‘20 Madeleine Phung, ‘20 Tia Taylor, ‘20 Priscilla Wongso, and myself.
Apart from three breakout sessions on leadership through improvisation, storytelling, and effective communication, students could volunteer to participate in a book-club-like discussion of Becoming which we had all read in preparation for the event. Senior Maddie Fynes and I, along with 23 other high school girls made up this book discussion group, and we were separated from the rest of the conference.
An organizer ushered us into a room set up for our discussion and had us sit in a circle of chairs and couches where we were joined by Matrice Ellis-Kirk, one of the leaders of the conference. She let us know that there would be a few members of the press sitting in on our conversation, this being the first annual Young Women’s Leadership Conference. What Ellis-Kirk described as “a few” was really an entire press corps with their bulky video equipment and cameras that almost instantly began flashing at our faces. Our humble book discussion had somehow become a newsworthy affair.
Students began sharing their favorite moments from Obama’s memoir, ranging from piano lessons she had as child which taught her about privilege in America to her friendship with former President George W. Bush. I was most inspired by her decision to quit her cushy job as a corporate lawyer and work for a non-profit. Because of Michelle Obama and her memoir, I am determined to affect positive change in whatever field I go into and to be open to the occasional “swerve” in life despite the risk.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that the Michelle Obama would walk right into our discussion of her own memoir. But there she was, wearing a cute pantsuit, an excited smile, and open arms ready to wrap each one of us in a warm hug. I instantly burst into happy tears along with many of the other girls. We finally settled down, and Obama sat two seats away from me. She encouraged us to continue what we were discussing earlier, but, understandably, we were all speechless. The former First Lady and Most Admired Woman in America, whose life story we had intimately explored and been deeply moved by, was sitting in our circle, ready to listen and give advice.
Obama truly spent time with us. She listened closely to what each student asked or shared, she spoke thoughtfully and encouragingly, and she treated us with respect and warmth. One struggle of Obama’s journey that seemed to resonate with the group was self-doubt in her abilities and negativity from others. Throughout her life, whether it be when her guidance counselor told her she was not “Princeton material” or when people stereotyped her as an “angry black woman” while on the campaign trail, Obama has faced these issues. She shared how she continues to struggle with self-doubt, but she does not allow it to prevent her from continuing on.
“There will always be someone who wants to punch you in the stomach, who wants to trip you up, and make you doubt yourself. You have to practice vigorously to tune out the negative and eat up the positive. You have to learn to be resilient in this lifetime.” She added, “Be prepared, because so many people will try to tell you what you can’t do, and the only thing you have to fall back on is your preparation and the confidence you have to rise above.”
Throughout the discussion, I found it difficult to stop myself from smiling. I drank in each moment. Even though the other students and I were awestruck by Michelle Obama, she invited us not to be. I could tell that she saw in us what other people saw in her at our age. During the discussion, I felt that I was sitting in a room full of future Michelle Obamas. She celebrated our potential and acknowledged what we could become as not an “if” but a “when.”
Although I felt incredibly inspired by and grateful for that moment with Obama, I knew it was not exactly my moment. Becoming reminded me of my privilege and the opportunities I have that she and many others did not have including going to a private school, living in an affluent neighborhood, and especially, being white.
I found that I was equally inspired by the stories of the girls in our group and their perseverance through similar hardships. One of the students who I had met before the discussion shared that she had immigrated to America with her family at age seven and how she has worked incredibly hard despite her difficult transition. Another student resonated with Obama’s struggle of growing up in the tougher neighborhood of South Side, Chicago. For this student, her South Side is West Dallas. The student shared how people she encounters do not believe she will amount to anything because of where she is from. Obama told these students to never forget or diminish their stories or where they came from because they are essential parts of their journeys.
At the end of the discussion, our group took a picture together (a nice one and a silly one) and the First Lady once again gave us all hugs. I will forever remember the moment when Michelle Obama hugged me and told me to “keep it up.”
Luckily, for the rest of the students in the conference, Obama did not leave without speaking to the group as a whole. She left us with these wise words:
“I don’t know you personally, but I know who you are. I know where you’ve come from and I know your stories, and let me tell you, you all are just like me. I was you. And that’s what I hope you get from this book. My stories aren’t grand. I was first lady but that was just 8 years. That’s just a little blip in [my life]. What makes you all you are the stories. Those journeys—the bumps and the bruises, the mistakes you made, the things that feel embarrassing, your joys, your pains. That’s what makes you you. That’s your journey to becoming, and I want you to all embrace it in a way that I didn’t know I should when I was your age—with courage and with pride.” –Michelle Obama