In her last official speech as First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama lauded the importance of a good education, speaking in the White House’s East Room.
This took place on 6 January, at an event held to honour the work of university counsellors across America. Obama’s focus within her time at the White House has often centred around education, both in the US and in Third World countries. She made a direct appeal to the young people of the United states to equip themselves with “the best possible education.”
The first part of her speech appreciated the work that university counsellors do, helping students through obstacles they face and supporting them to realise their best potential, showing them “that no matter where they’re from or how much money their parents have, no matter what they look like or who they love or how they worship or what language they speak at home, they have a place in this country.”
The second part of the speech held important and ever more pertinent messages which should hit home with Europeans, as we face many similar challenges to America’s today.
Her incredibly emotional and thought-provoking speech focused on the diversity in the United States – “the infusion of new cultures, talents and ideas, generation after generation” said Obama, “that has made us the greatest country on earth.”
It is, of course, debatable whether the United States of America is the greatest country on earth, but that is a discussion for another time.
Obama pointed to her own family history: her father going to work in the city water plant each day, in “the hope that one day, his kids would go to college and have opportunities he never dreamed of.”
The speech struck a strong chord with the first Obama electoral campaign, and the couple’s message of hope. Their slogan, “YES WE CAN!” was the key motivation and inspiration for Michelle Obama. She is a speaker whose words have so much more significance because she is the embodiment of her message: “With a lot of hard work and a good education, anything is possible — even becoming President. That’s what the American Dream is all about.”
As in her speeches on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama managed to give a curt nod to the incoming President, Donald Trump, without actually mentioning him.
Her most famous line from the 2016 election campaign was “when they go low, we go high.” Once more spreading her message of positivity and hope, Obama emphasised the diversity of the US: “You see, our glorious diversity — our diversities of faiths and colours and creeds — that is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are.”
This was in stark contrast to the Trump campaign’s main focus which was, of course, a tough stance on Mexican and Muslim immigration.
And this is why Michelle Obama has retained such high levels of popularity: Her restraint and level headedness in responding to the many political attacks and obstacles she faced is uncharacteristic in political circles in the US and UK. Perhaps it is because she is a woman.
She emphasised the importance of knowing that each person has a place in the American story (“you have a right to be exactly who you are”), but that “this right has to be earned every single day. You cannot take your freedoms for granted. Just like generations who have come before you, you have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms. And that starts right now, when you’re young.”
As a young (European) graduate, it was Obama’s message about education, rather than diversity, that resounded the most with me. She appealed directly to the young people of America to prepare themselves to add their voice to the national conversation: “you need to prepare yourself to be informed and engaged as a citizen… And that means getting the best education possible so you can think critically, so you can express yourself clearly.”
The Obamas have spoken about the modern phenomenon of safe spaces and the trigger warning culture. Barack Obama has said that the idea that in university you should need to be protected from something you may not agree with, is ridiculous.
Unfortunately, levels of political correctness in American Colleges have reached worrying levels. The same can be said for universities across the UK and Ireland.
The Obamas’ message of hope has the ability to inspire generation after generation. Michelle Obama told her audience that they will encounter obstacles; and then, connecting more deeply with her audience, she spoke of her and Barack’s many challenges in the last decade.
I have often wondered how they coped with the frustration of the American political system and conservatism that has made effecting real change impossible.
Michelle Obama’s speech made this clear: “I want you to remember something that my husband and I have talked about since we first started this journey nearly a decade ago, something that has carried us through every moment in this White House and every moment of our lives, and that is the power of hope — the belief that something better is always possible if you’re willing to work for it and fight for it.”
Once again, giving the proverbial two fingers to Trump, she told the United States:
“So don’t be afraid — you hear me, young people? Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourselves with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope, never fear. And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.”
Obama finished her speech thanking the nation that made her and her husband the first black President and First Lady of the United States 8 years ago: “Being your First Lady has been the greatest honour of my life, and I hope I’ve made you proud.”
Michelle Obama as First Lady of the United States has been the biggest mark of social change in the US.
Her work and unstoppable message of hope and possibility has made millions of Americans proud. The Obamas’ work will continue, as will, however, their struggles.