Obama ’85 recalls being surprised at the “mediocrity” of students during her time at the U.| December 2, 2018
Thousands of people lined up at the entrance to the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia an hour before Michelle Obama’s ’85 book tour event on Thursday, Nov. 29. Nearby, peddlers sold t-shirts with the former first lady’s picture printed on the front. Attendees clutched copies of Obama’s memoir “Becoming.”
Inside, feel-good pop songs from Obama’s playlist blasted through the speakers as the seats quickly filled up. Before long, comedian and writer Phoebe Robinson, the moderator for the event, welcomed Obama on stage.
Among the people in the audience were several University students, many of whom attended as Carl A. Fields Fellows, receiving the tickets through the University.
During the conversation, which discussed Obama’s life from childhood to to her last day at the White House, Obama recounted her experiences at the University. She explained her thoughts on affirmative action and obstacles facing students of color.
Hearing a few cheers from the audience at the mention of the University, Obama responded with, “Go Princeton!”
The conversation had first shifted to the University when Robinson asked Obama about her encounter with a guidance counselor in her senior year of high school, which Obama details in her memoir.
According to Obama, the counselor had discouraged her from applying to the University, explaining that she was not “Princeton material.”
“My only thought at that moment was ‘I’ll show you,’” Obama wrote in the memoir.
Obama laughed about a visit to her high school after she had shared the story of the encounter.
“I went back to my high school recently,” Obama said. “The principal was like, ‘She doesn’t work here anymore.’”
Returning to issues of discouragement, Obama said that she decided to focus on the support she gained from her family in making decisions for her future.
“There’s always someone in your life who thinks well of you,” she told the audience. “Maybe it’s a teacher. Maybe it’s from your church. Maybe it’s from a community group you belong to.” She explained that it is oftentimes more difficult for first generation students to find this support because of a lack of understanding from families or communities.
Returning to the problem of doubters, Obama shared that she believes women and people of color are frequently told that “they can’t” or that “they shouldn’t reach.” She noted that meanwhile, there are “mediocre, average” people who are always encouraged to follow their goals.
When she arrived at the University, for instance, Obama said she was surprised by a reality quite different from the one her guidance counselor warned her about.
“When you’re told that you shouldn’t even apply, you get to the school and then you look around and go ‘Are you kidding me? Is this who was getting in before me?’” she said.
She recalled being surprised by the “mediocrity” of people who she was warned would be at a level higher than she was.
Obama also described the pressures on minority students who fear that they were only accepted to the University because of affirmative action. She then shared a realization that helped her to overcome this mindset.
“I realize there’s all kinds of affirmative action that goes on here, let me tell you. When my neighbor down the hall happens to have the same last name as the hall we live in,” she said.
She went on to criticize the idea that minority students are not viewed with the same level of acceptance as legacy students or athletes in terms of admission.
“This is what kids of color and poor kids from rural communities don’t understand. They walk into those schools and they’re thinking ‘I don’t belong,’ and it’s not true,” she said.
The conversation then shifted to her love story with former President Barack Obama and her involvement in political life.
When asked about her next move, Obama explained that she will continue to support causes that she is passionate about and find out what her future holds.
Josh Faires ʼ20 who attended the event described it as “one of the most incredible moments of [his] life.”
Faires is a news contributor for The Daily Princetonian.
Obama’s description of the University resonated with Faires.
“Her discussions on Princeton were on point!” Faires wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “Many people like to say that minority, FLI students are just getting in because of affirmative action. When your last name matches the name of a hall here, don’t go saying that we have some extra advantage.”
Katherine Powell ʼ20 was also at the event and was one of the few women invited to share “#IAmBecoming” statements with the audience. As a student from the South Side of Chicago, like Obama, and who attended the same high school as the former first lady, Powell told the ‘Prince’ that she has always been inspired by Obama.
Powell also shared that she agreed with Obama’s comments on the doubts facing low income students or students of color.
“You’re told that you’re so much less than these people who grew up with so much more than you and you realize that it’s not true — you’ve worked hard and you can compete with them because you’re just as intelligent,” she wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “That was powerful. It was really affirming to me.”
Earlier that day, Obama surprised high school girls from the Philadelphia-based organization beGirl.world at the African American Museum. After discussing issues of confidence, fear, and achievement, Obama gifted the girls with copies of her memoir and tickets to the Philadelphia book tour event.
Ten percent of proceeds from the book tour events are given to non-profit organizations based in each host city.