The White House
Office of the First Lady
Remarks by the First Lady at Student Forum in Detroit
Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan
11:19 A.M. EDT
MRS. OBAMA: Wow! (Applause.) Detroit! (Applause.) This is pretty amazing. Oh, my goodness. Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody. It is so good to be here at Wayne State University! (Applause.) Thank you to the Wayne State family for hosting me on this remarkable campus in the heart of this proud city. I’m just so honored. I want to thank Cherry for that kind and amazing introduction. Let’s give her a round of applause. (Applause.)
And I also have to thank a few other people, too. I want to thank Governor Granholm -- (applause), Representative Kilpatrick -- (applause), Mayor Bing -- (applause.) I want to thank Dr. Jay Noren, who’s the President of Wayne State. (Applause.) He made all this possible. I also have to thank the Marching Crusaders from MLK Senior High School -- (applause) -- and of course one of my favorite entertainers, singers -- she’s powerful, she reminds you of what singing really is, Kimberly Locke. Let’s give them all a wonderful hand. Thank you for their performances. (Applause.) And we also have to thank all of the amazing mentors who showed up, who flew in from all over the country to be here. Let’s give them another round of applause for our mentors. (Applause.)
And I also want to acknowledge everyone who’s joined us from Selfridge Air National Guard Base. I want to thank you all for your service to our country. We are, as always, so grateful and proud of the work that you do.
And last but not least, I want to thank all the students, all the students for coming here, for being here -- (applause) -- for being out in the heat, for standing, for sweating. Some of you, I know you’re fainting a little bit. Get some water, but we’re here together. It is beautiful.
I am thrilled to be here. I’ve wanted to come here from day one, and I am honored to be with all of you. The remarkable men and women that you just saw up here a few moments ago that served on the panel who were mentoring, they’ve all flown here today, and we’re all here because we care so deeply about your futures. Listen up. We care about your future and the future that we all share. That's why we’re here.
And I know that focusing on the future can be hard when times are tough. And in Detroit, in the state of Michigan, it goes without saying that times here have been tough. For the past several years, it has been tough everywhere in the country. But this city in particular has known its share of hard times. In recent years, you’ve seen jobs disappear, neighborhoods divide, schools deteriorate more than in any other city in America. And even more recently, you’ve experienced more grieving than any one city should have to bear.
So let me tell you something, the last thing any of you need is someone to come here and tick off statistics; to tell you what you already know is going on in your own lives; or to have somebody write another story about what’s wrong with Detroit.
And let me say that is not why I’m here. I am here because I know something that I want everyone in America to know -- and that there is a brighter, better future ahead for Detroit, for Michigan, for America. (Applause.)
And let me tell you why I know this -- because I’m looking at our future right now. It is all of you. I’m looking at it. And it is a beautiful sight. I wanted to come here for the same reason that folks always call and will call this city home, because if you ask anyone here why they stay, even times are tough, they’ll say, look around, look at all we’re doing to move Detroit forward to reinvent and redefine what it means to live in this great city. They’ll tell you that the true worth of a community isn’t just in what you see when you drive around -- it’s in the goodness of its people.
And there are so many good people here. (Applause.) Everyday there are heroes who wake up early, they kiss their kids goodbye, and they catch the first bus to work. Everywhere there are young people who are working hard, and they’re getting good grades, and they’re helping their families. Everywhere there are neighbors who are rolling up their sleeves and taking care of their neighborhoods in their spare time. There are students everywhere here who stay up late just to earn their degrees. Thousands and thousands of good people who love this city, who are proud of their community, and believe there is no action too small or too simple to make a difference.
So despite what some may think they know about this city, what I know is there is plenty of hope here. There’s plenty of hope -- (applause) -- because what you all have to know is despite everything that’s changed here, this is still the city where men clocked in to factories every day and built from scratch the greatest middle class the world has ever known. (Applause.)
This is still the city where women rolled up their sleeves and clocked in, too, and they helped build an arsenal of democracy that led this world to freedom.
And this is still a city of brave, bold, and determined Americans; a city where clever and courageous people come up with fresh new ideas to re-imagine and revitalize life here each and every day.
So our next chapter –- Detroit’s next chapter, Michigan’s next chapter, America’s next chapter –- is waiting to be written. And it will be written by each and every one of you, because your future, your city’s future, this country’s future will look exactly like what each of you wants it to look like.
And that’s what I believe. And that’s why I am here. Young people, I am asking you to embrace that responsibility to be our future.
Now, let me tell you, I know that is a lot to ask, given all that many of you have been through. After all, the truth is, young folks, you didn’t do anything to get our economy in the state it’s been in. You all didn’t make the decisions that brought us to this point. I know that. So you have every right to say in your mind, “It’s not my fault. What can I do? I’ve got enough to worry about.”
No one would blame you for feeling like no one’s listening, like you’ve been given up on. No one would blame you for choosing just to look out for yourselves. I get that. We all get that, right?
But I hope of all hopes that you don’t feel that way, because there is a real truth out there, and that is there are a lot of people listening. I am listening. My husband is listening. (Applause.) The folks who are joining me here today, we are all listening. There are so many people who haven’t given up on you. There are so many people here who will always believe that you can do this. And there are so many people here who are counting on you all.
So I hope we’re here because we want you to feel energized. We need you all to feel energized. And I hope you all recognize the possibilities that are out there waiting for you. I hope you realize how much potential you have, and how capable you are of living up to that potential.
But the thing I want to tell you is that the simplest and surest way for you to live up to that potential is to do just one thing -- and that's keep focusing on your education. (Applause.) That’s right, that's it: Keep focusing on your education. That is your job. Not playing video games, not shooting hoops, not dropping beats, not talking about how you’re going to make it big. See, there’s a time and place for all that. There really is.
But, if you’re looking for the secret of success -- do you want to know the secret? (Applause.) You’ve got to realize that there is no secret. It is your education, plain and simple. It’s mastering math and science. It’s learning to write well. It is learning to think for yourself and coming up with your own ideas and your arguments, and learning how to express that.
That is what has made the difference for me. That’s what the -- made the difference for my husband. That’s what’s made the difference for so many successful people. The folks who were on this stage, we are only where we are today because of the education we received. That's the secret.
My husband wasn’t born a President. He didn’t grow up with a lot of money. He didn’t even grow up knowing his father. He was no more talented or gifted than any one of you here. His life could have taken any turn. But what he did have was someone who believed in him and pushed him to work hard and do his best.
See, when Barack was young, he and his mother lived overseas for a time, and she didn’t have a lot of money to send him to fancy schools where the other American kids were going. She didn’t let that stop her from giving him everything she could to succeed.
So you know what she did? She woke Barack Obama up at 4:30 every morning, five days a week, just to go over his lessons with him before he went to school, and before she went to work. So yeah, he’d complain, he didn’t like it, he tried to find an excuse to keep sleeping -- sleep is good -- but she wouldn’t let him. Barack’s mother wouldn’t give in. She’d just say, “You know, this is no picnic for me either, buddy.” (Laughter.)
And it’s because she made sure he was getting what he needed for his education; it’s because she sacrificed, day after day, week after week; that he had every chance –- every shot –- to someday become the President of the United States of America. (Applause.) Look, folks, it’s education.
My upbringing was a little bit different from his. I grew up in the Midwest, like you. Grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in a community just like many of yours. It was a community where people often struggled to make ends meet. But folks worked hard, they looked out for each another, and they always rallied around their kids.
I was blessed to have two parents who worked to give me and my brother everything they never had. My father, all his life, was a shift worker at the water plant. My mother stayed at home and helped raise me and my brother. And it’s because they did what they did that we were the first in our immediate family to go to college. And that made all the difference in the world.
And I’m sure, looking out at all of you, that many of you have similar stories as mine -- stories of parents and grandparents who wanted something more for you, so they saved and they sacrificed so that you could have opportunities they never could have imagined for themselves.
I imagine that right now there are some of you here at Wayne State who are the first in your families to make it to college. Am I right? (Applause.) And I’m sure there are some high school students here who are going to be the first from their families to attend college, right? (Applause.)
Look, and I know what a big responsibility that is to shoulder. I know it’s tough to think about finishing school when the odds say you won’t. I know it’s tough not to feel guilty about earning your education and moving on when maybe your family might have larger issues at home. I know it’s tough to try and live up to the potential you know you have inside when there is always something to undercut you; or someone who’s ready to underestimate you.
But the simple fact that you are all here shows that you’re already beating those odds. You are already making a way out of no way. You’ve got to know that. All of you are already succeeding.
So I’m just here to tell you to keep going. And let me tell you something, if you’re not doing everything you could be doing to succeed in school today, then you all have to push yourselves. You have to. You have to take responsibility for your education and for your future. And let me just say this, it’s not always going to be easy. You won’t always get credit for what you do.
And I know that can be frustrating, especially when your generation has grown up in a popular culture that doesn’t exactly value all your hard work and commitment, but instead it glorifies easy answers, and instant gratification, and quick celebrity. It’s a culture that tells us that our lives should be easy, that we can have everything we want right now without a lot of effort; that struggle and sacrifice aren’t necessary for success.
But that’s not how life really works. And you all know that. You know that businesses don’t really succeed without hard work and serious investments to produce quality products. We know that our economy doesn’t really prosper when folks focus on easy credit, and get-rich-quick schemes, or promises that living beyond our means is okay. And we know that our leaders don’t really become leaders without running into obstacles and setbacks along the way. My husband has certainly had his share.
The truth is few things worth achieving happen in an instant. And the greatest value is found in the greatest effort. Embracing our challenges, and not shrinking from them, is the surest way to succeed -- and it is the only way to become what we’re truly meant to be.
So students, I want you to keep that in mind. Your education is the surest way to your success. But even though you’ve got teachers and principals and families now who believe in you, you won’t always have someone to push you. So that means you’ve got to push yourselves and you’ve got to push each other, even when it’s hard.
Some of you may be in schools that aren’t the best shape –- but that can’t stop you from hitting the books when you get home. That’s on you. (Applause.)
Some of you may not have many role models to look up to –- but that shouldn’t keep you from being a role model for somebody else. That’s on you.
Some of you may feel weighed down by other people’s low expectations for you. But that cannot stop you from breaking free; from setting high expectations for yourselves; from exceeding those expectations and proving people wrong. That’s on you.
Look, young folks, there is so much in life that you can’t control. But these are the things you can. So please don’t ever let anyone tell you your destiny is already decided for you. Don't do that. You tell them that your destiny is for you to decide. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do something. You tell them what? “Yes we can.” That's what you tell them. (Applause.)
And as you take responsibility for yourselves, I also want you to think about taking responsibility for others and for your own community.
So yeah, pay attention in class, throw yourselves into getting your education. But nudge your buddy, that friend, you know? Make sure that he or she is focused, too. Help them through, as well.
Yeah, I want you all to take that trip to Eastern Market, get healthy, fresh, food if you’ve got a car. But offer to get some for somebody who doesn’t, for an elderly neighbor who can’t get there. That's what I want you to do. (Applause.)
Yeah, take some pride in keeping your block as clean, as safe as you can. But help your friends take care of their blocks, too.
Fight for every inch of your future. But take a little time each week to lift up the families, and neighbors, and schools that need your help today.
And one other thing. As you push forward with your education, both inside and outside of the classroom, I want you all to consider this. Consider the wider world out there, too. We live in a world. And think about how you can engage broadly with other people and other cultures around the world, embracing your place as part of a big, powerful, young, global generation.
Now, that may sound strange when there’s so much to do right here at home. But if the opportunity ever arises for any of you to participate in exchange programs, a study abroad program, maybe even travel abroad, volunteer for a short time -- that is my one regret that I didn’t do when I was young -- I would urge you to try to do that.
It’ll advance your education; it will expand your sense of possibilities; and it will make you more competitive for the jobs of the future.
But more importantly it will also show you just how much we all have in common –- no matter where we live in the world.
And as First Lady, I’ve made it a point to spend time with young people your age when I visit other countries.
I make it a point to do that. And what is so remarkable is that no matter where I go, or who they are, they’re so much like you.
Young people around the world, they share similar worries, similar frustrations. But you all share similar hopes and dreams. And what’s most amazing is you are all so eager and willing to make a difference. And that is what gives me hope. If we hope to solve the most pressing challenges in the world, we’re going to have to adopt the perspective of young people, a perspective that reminds us all that we have more in common than we think, because in times of tension, it’s easy for us to slip into focusing only on what makes us different –- things like color and class –- when all that does is deepen mistrust and keep us from working together.
But we are all in this together. That's the truth. Young, old; black, white; Hispanic, Asian, Arab-American; city, suburb; both sides of 8 Mile -- (applause) -- none of us can fully succeed without one another.
And it’s times like these that require us to put our differences aside, and focus on what we have in common -- things like pride in where we live.
So we’re looking to you. We’re looking to your idealism, your optimism, your willingness to look at things in a new and fresh way. We need you to rebuild those bridges, to restore that understanding, to renew that trust -- not just here in America but around the world.
So one last thing before I go. Here’s what I want you all to remember: In life, there are two kinds of people: those who give up, and those who don’t. And it’s the folks who don’t who make all the difference. And I believe in my heart, which is why I’m here, that you all are those special people. You are the ones really that we’ve been waiting for.
So apply yourselves, young people. Listen to me. Apply yourselves. Show us how it’s done. You all have to study hard. Can you do that? Can you dream big? (Applause.) Can you hope deeply? Never give up, because we will never give up on you. We have got your backs. We’re rooting for you, and sometimes you need to hear that. Sometimes you just need to know that big, important people out there are rooting for you. We believe in you all, and we will keep working for you as long as you keep working for us.
So thank you so much. You all take care. Be strong. (Applause.)
11:42 A.M. EDT