In an exclusive interview with Latina, Michelle Obama talks about the White House’s Reach Higher education initiative, her freshman year at Princeton, and the tools students need to succeed in school—and life.
Many Latinas are the first in their family to attend college. What advice do you have for a young Latina who may feel scared or out of place or thinks that she doesn’t belong?
When I was growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money, and neither of my parents had a college degree. There were plenty of folks who doubted whether a girl like me was “college material.” My freshman year at Princeton, I was pretty anxious and homesick. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t even bring the right size sheets for my dorm-room bed. After a few months, I realized that I needed to step up. I started reaching out to professors and making friends with juniors and seniors who became my mentors. Don’t wait to ask for help. There are countless people whose job is to help you succeed: deans, professors, resident advisors, and folks at the writing, tutoring, and counseling center. You have to go knocking on their door.
For many Latino students, entering college isn’t the problem—affording tuition is the challenge. What’s the most important resource the initiative offers to help students and their families pay for college?
The federal government provides $150 billion in grants, loans, and aid every year. But to get that money, you have to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Just go to fafsa.gov starting October 1. You can also keep track of the college application process by connecting with my Better Make Room campaign. The Up Next tool sends reminders about important deadlines—like when to register for the SAT and ACT—right to your phone. Text “College” to 44044 to sign up.
There are many college-educated people who are unemployed or underemployed, and some say college isn’t worth the cost anymore. How do you respond to this anti-college sentiment?
In today’s economy, a high school education isn’t enough. Whether you attend a four-year college, a community college, or a professional training program, getting a higher-education degree is the key to building a successful career. Studies show that people with a college degree have an easier time finding a job than those with only a high school diploma, and they earn roughly $1 million more, on average, during their lifetime.
What did college teach you that has absolutely nothing to do with academics?
I sharpened my ability to think critically and write well, and I built the confidence and skills to pursue my ambitions and make my voice heard. I also deepened my passion for public service, which eventually led me to the legal aid clinic in law school and jobs in the Chicago mayor’s office and as the executive director of a nonprofit organization. College helped me figure out the direction I wanted my life to take, and I am endlessly grateful for that.
For more information about Reach Higher, go to whitehouse.gov/reach-higher.