Michelle Obama Gets Personal

What dreams are left for the woman who grew up working class in Chicago, graduated from Princeton and Harvard law and became the first African-American first lady of the United StatesHere’s one of them: “To open a secret door for others that hadn’t been opened for me,” by pairing disadvantaged girls with some of the powerful women in the land. Join us for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look

by Tamara Jones
michelle obama photo
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Candidates are selected discreetly by participating schools and organizations, including the Girl Scouts and military-family support groups. The 20 girls, who enter the program as sophomores or juniors, are usually off-limits to the press, their special status not broadcast at the gala events they attend as VIP guests of the East Wing. To the public eye, mentoring is just one of the three issues Obama has built her platform on since her husband’s election, along with supporting military families and crusading against childhood obesity. But this cause truly belongs to Michelle and always has.

“It’s very personal,” she says. “I mean, growing up the way that I did—kid from the South Side, going to public schools—the more my career developed, I realized how much I didn’t see, how little exposure I had to opportunities.” Neither Fraser nor Marian Robinson went to college, and an education was always the brass ring they urged daughter Michelle and her older brother, Craig, to grab. Michelle rode city buses for three hours a day to attend the distant magnet high school she tested into, and she became class treasurer. But no one saw Ivy League material in the hardworking Robinson girl until she resolved to follow Craig to Princeton after he won a basketball scholarship. “When he got in, I thought, Well, shoot, I know I’m smarter than he is,” she says with a laugh. “So if he can go to Princeton, I’ll just apply.” It became the turning point of her life.

“There were many people who told me, ‘Well, Princeton might be too hard for you,’ ” she says. Obama had been an A student, but those grades were from a public high school, not an elite prep school, and her test scores were good but not stellar. “So I had doubts in the way that I think many of these kids that we mentor have doubts . . . It doesn’t matter what your grades are—if there’s a message in your head that makes you think you can’t quite do something, you can feed into that.” But she pushed herself and learned that, yes, she “could actually compete.” And succeed.

“I sort of thought, What’s the mystery here? What is it about this place that makes some people—even myself—think that some people should have access to it and others shouldn’t? And that’s where I discovered that there is no mystery to this stuff. It is hard work. It’s access; it’s being able to envision it.”

It’s also knowing how to ask for help when you need it. Obama cites a senior thesis adviser at Princeton—“one of the tougher professors in my department”—who forced her to “really up my game in so many ways.” Earlier on, there was the student-program director who invited her home for meals, took her on her first trip to New York City and sparked an interest in community service. “She stood out for me, not just because she was African American but [because] she was a professional,” says Obama, who prefers not to make her mentors’ names public. “She was also a single mom. And she was a very passionate person who was committed to working in the community. She encouraged me to start a day-care program for some of the faculty members’ and staff members’ children. And I would have never done that without her encouragement.”

In addition, she says, her mentor’s home was “really a respite for me. When you’re in college, it’s nice to know somebody who lives in a regular apartment that has a refrigerator and a level of normalcy. She offered a place of peace and calm.”

What Obama doesn’t mention in these Princeton stories is how separate and apart she was, as a working-class black student in a privileged, overwhelmingly white environment. As reported by Geraldine Brooks in a 2008 Moreprofile, the parents of Obama’s first roommate protested to the administration that their daughter had been assigned to share quarters with an African American. And the exclusive eating clubs that dominated campus social life were not welcoming to blacks.

First Published January 31, 2012

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