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Michelle Obama to girls: 'Push past those doubters'

First lady's commitment to Let Girls Learn will extend beyond the White House

Kelly Wallace | 3/9/2016, 2:30 p.m.
When Michelle Obama traveled to Cambodia last summer as part of her Let Girls Learn initiative, she had a message ...
First Lady Michelle Obama joined United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for an announcement on school wellness and to highlight the progress being made in school health environments across the country. (Pool photo)

— When Michelle Obama traveled to Cambodia last summer as part of her Let Girls Learn initiative, she had a message for any girls facing barriers to education: Move beyond the "doubters."

It is something the first lady says she herself faced growing up. "There were some teachers that I ran into who doubted that a girl like me -- a black girl from the south side of Chicago -- should apply to Princeton or could get into Harvard," Michelle Obama said during a recent panel discussion at the American Magazine Media Conference.

Those cultural barriers -- whether they be from within girls' own families or their communities or their countries, along with messages that girls are not smart enough or good enough to go to school -- are part of the reason why 62 million girls worldwide don't have access to education, a number the first lady is trying to dramatically reduce as part of Let Girls Learn, the program she and the President launched exactly one year ago.

"As I told those girls in Cambodia, our job is to push past those doubters and to find those caring adults that see the positive in us because they are out there," she said. "Because for all the people that told me I couldn't do it, I had parents who believed deeply in my ability to do whatever I wanted to do."

Now in her final year as first lady, Obama is more than comfortable injecting the personal into her messaging, and firmly believes that by sharing her personal story, she can connect to young girls everywhere.

"When you're the first lady or you're an actress, you're larger in life to many girls living in poor communities, living in urban cities, not just here in the United States, but around the world. You seem untouchable," she said, on a panel along with actresses Julianne Moore and Lena Dunham, and moderated by Lesley Jane Seymour of More magazine.

"And for me, it is so important for kids, in particular, to understand that I am them, they are me."

Consequences of barriers are 'devastating'

A big component of Let Girls Learn is raising awareness about the plight of adolescent girls worldwide who are not able to attend and complete school, something the first lady did again Tuesday in connection with International Women's Day.

"I'm passionate about this because I truly see myself in these girls -- in their hunger, in their burning determination to rise above their circumstances and reach for something more. And I know that many of you do, too," said Obama during a speech in Washington marking the first anniversary of Let Girls Learn.

The first lady also announced how dozens of companies have together donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the effort, and how others are creating products to raise awareness or promote Let Girls Learn in their advertisements. More than 40 countries have also signed on to become Peace Corps Let Girls Learn countries, which means Peace Corps volunteers in those countries will get additional training and support so they can become "agents of change" for girls' education in their local communities, said Carrie Hessler-Radelet, director of the Peace Corps.