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

Jocelyn Frye, Obama’s director of policy and projects, reached out to female White House staffers, assigning two per student and requiring each to commit to meeting her mentee in person for one monthly activity. How much time they invested beyond that was up to them. The volunteer list soon resembled a Who’s Who of the White House: Valerie Jarrett, the senior adviser sometimes described as the president’s second brain; Cristeta Comerford, who immigrated from the Philippines and worked her way up from hotel kitchens to become the first female executive chef in White House history; even a supervisor on the Secret Service’s elite presidential detail. It wasn’t long before the CFO of the Executive Office was helping a vision-impaired Junior ROTC officer whittle down her college choices, and the Secret Service agent was cheering in the bleachers at a junior varsity volleyball game. (Obama has given up having her own mentee, to make it easier for her to connect with all the girls equally, Frye says.)

“They’re a fascinating group of girls,” says Allyson Laackman, 54, whose biggest dream at her mentee’s age was to become a bank teller and who went on to oversee an $800 million budget as CFO of the Executive Office. Of herself and the other mentors, she says, “We’re 18 again. We get to see life through their young eyes.” The relationship has also filled a personal void for Laackman. “My husband and dog are in Chicago, and my kids are in college,” she says. “So this [program] gives special richness to my time in D.C.”

Patrice Haney, 19, a graduate of D.C.’s notoriously rough Anacostia High School, headed off to her freshman year at Middle Tennessee State with a shoebox full of photographs and programs from White House events she attended. Haney was paired with Leslie, a 42-year-old Secret Service agent (who asked that her last name not be published). “She’s always telling me to stay focused,” says Haney. Leslie remembers how, at first, Haney was surprised to see her show up on the sidelines of her cheerleading competitions and softball games; sometimes she even brought friends along. “The coaches kind of called us out,” Leslie admits sheepishly; these events were sparsely attended, and one player’s having a very vocal personal fan club did not go over well.

Haney was valedictorian at her high school graduation last spring. Just as she was about to give her speech, she says she felt her confidence begin to falter. What she did next: “I closed my eyes and told myself, If I can talk to Michelle and Barack Obama, then this should be a piece of cake. Then I opened my eyes and talked about new doors opening for us.”

That kind of transformation is exactly what Michelle Obama tries to inspire not only in the White House mentees but also in the many other young girls she meets in her travels around the world. As FLOTUS and POTUS, she and Barack Obama often take underprivileged local young people onto campuses such as Oxford. “Because first,” she says, “in order to have a vision, you have to know what’s there, right?”

But dreaming is only part of her message to the girls. Even more imperative, she tells them, is taking action to make dreams happen. José Rico, who was one of Obama’s first mentees back at Public Allies, remembers the vague, pie-in-the-sky answer he gave when she asked him what he wanted to do. He was 23 and had abandoned a fledgling career in engineering to become a community organizer.

“I want to build my own school,” he announced.

“What are the next steps you need to take to build your school?” she asked.

“I haven’t thought about that,” he admitted. Obama immediately put him in touch with her husband, who was working with a school-reform group at the time. Rico became an educator and championed a successful crusade to build a public school in an underserved Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago.

“Hey, I did it,” he told her when they ran into each other seven years ago. “She gave me a big hug and said, ‘Well, I knew you could.’ ” Today, Rico works in the Department of Education as deputy director of a program that aims to boost the academic achievements of Hispanic-American students.

First Published January 31, 2012

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