Michelle Obama’s message to high school grads: You don’t have to be privileged to get ahead—you just have to act like it

“Every scar that you have is a reminder not just that you got hurt, but that you survived. “
“Every scar that you have is a reminder not just that you got hurt, but that you survived. “
Image: AP Photo/Christian K Lee
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Michelle Obama spoke to the high school graduating class of Chicago’s King College Prep School earlier this week. The school, on the city’s south side, won a video challenge that brought the US first lady back to her hometown to deliver a commencement address.

She tasked the graduates with going forth into the world and changing the existing narratives about their community, historically known for its rough neighborhoods. She also shared two big pieces of advice that extend to most 18-year-olds entering college.

“Getting help isn’t a sign of weakness but a sign of strength”

Obama said that as a freshman at Princeton, she struggled with basic college skills like taking notes in a big lecture hall and choosing the right classes. But the more entitled students around her solved those problems easily—they were used to having help, so they asked for it.

“See, growing up they had the expectation that they would succeed and that they would have the resources they needed to achieve their goals. So whether it was taking an SAT prep class, getting a math tutor, seeking advice from a teacher or counselor, they took advantage of every opportunity they had. So I decided to follow their lead.

She found an advisor, went to the multicultural center, and sought older students to mentor her. She said students entering college now have a responsibility to seek help, and to keep seeking it until they find it.

“Wherever you are headed, I guarantee you that there will be all kinds of folks who are eager to help you. But they are not gonna come knocking on your door to find you. You have to take responsibility to find them. … You may have to go to a second or a third or a fourth person, but you keep asking.”

“Instead of letting your hardships and failures discourage or exhaust you, let them inspire you”

King College Prep made headlines in 2013 when one of its students, Hadiya Pendleton, was shot and killed off school grounds just one week after she performed with the school band at president Barack Obama’s inauguration.

She would have been a part of this graduating class, and a chair was left empty and adorned with purple in her honor.

Hadiya Pendleton’s seat.
Hadiya Pendleton’s seat.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

The first lady, who attended Pendleton’s funeral, spoke to the graduates and their families about how to deal with the challenge and grief of losing a friend so young, and with future struggles that they encounter.

“Every scar that you have is a reminder not just that you got hurt, but that you survived. And as painful as they are, those holes we all have in our hearts are what truly connect us to each other. They are the spaces we can make for other people’s sorrow and pain as well as their joy and their love so that eventually instead of feeling empty, our hearts feel even bigger and fuller. So it’s ok to feel the sadness, and the grief that comes with those losses. But instead of letting those feelings defeat you, let them motivate you, let them serve as fuel for your journey.”

For Obama, that scar was her father’s death.

“Every day without fail, I watched my father struggle on crutches to slowly make his way across our apartment, out the door, to work, without complaint or self-pity or regret. Now, my dad didn’t live to see me in the White House. He passed away from complications from his illness when I was in my 20s. And graduates, let me tell you, he is the hole in my heart. His loss is my scar. But let me tell you something—his memory drives me forward every single day of my life. Every day I work to make him proud. Every day I stay hungry, not just for myself but for him and for my mom and for all the kids I grew up with who never had the opportunities my family provided for me.

And graduates, today, I want to urge you all to do the same thing.”