Seven Great Tips Michelle Obama Gave our Rising College Freshmen

Michelle Obama speaks on a giant video screen in an auditorium, wearing a black Princeton sweatshirt with white lettering, while young people raise their cellphones to take photos.
Michelle Obama on the big screen at College Signing Day

Michelle Obama was greeted by thousands of screaming high school seniors— including some from our Options Center—when she came to Harlem last week. The First Lady was celebrating College Signing Day, an initiative she launched and has championed for the last two years. High-profile athletes aren’t the only ones who should be celebrated when they choose their college, she argues Ð all students should be, especially first-generation enrollees and those who face barriers because of their race, background or income level.

(That’s what the Options Center does, by the way: it helps young people get over the barriers that hold them back from starting, and finishing, college.)

Mrs. Obama had some great advice for these students. It’s pretty great advice for all students, really. Here are some highlights from her speech:

1. Be proud. You’re going to college!

“[W]e believe that all the adoration and attention should not just be focused on a few amazing football or basketball players.  The focus should be on young people like you. We want people to be sitting on the edges of their couches, wondering where you’re going to college. We believe that the entire nation should be looking up to you all as our heroes and role models.”

2. But now, brace yourself: you still have a long way to go!

“The minute you get to college this fall, I want you to get right back to work. Because today is not the end of your journey — it’s just the beginning. Remember, the goal, the ultimate goal here isn’t just getting into college; the goal is to finish and get that degree, okay?”

3. Throw yourself into your studies.

“Do not miss class.  Pay attention.  Take careful notes.  Raise your hand.  Ask questions when you’re confused.  Don’t be afraid to be wrong, because that was me — I didn’t even want to hear my voice in class.  I don’t want that for you. Don’t be afraid.  In college, you can’t just sit back and space out.  You have to be an active participant.”

4. Feel like a fish out of water? You’re not alone.

“When I arrived at Princeton my freshman year — imagine, little miss South Side of Chicago girl on Princeton’s campus! Believe me, I had a lot of catching up to do.  I didn’t know anybody.  I didn’t know what classes to take.  Shoot, I didn’t even have the right size sheets for my bed, because I didn’t realize the beds in college are extra-long. I was homesick.  I was anxious.  But after a couple of months, I had to get it together.  I had to make a decision.  And I decided that I needed to step up and own my college education, just like I owned my high school education.”

5. Get help.

“The minute you start to feel like you’re falling behind, the minute you find yourself struggling, you absolutely have to ask for help.  And remember this:  No one gets through college alone, and you’re not supposed to. That’s why there are countless people on your campuses whose job it is to help you succeed. You’re going to have RAs and deans.  You’re going to have a writing center, a tutoring center, counseling centers — they’re all just waiting for you to come to them for help. And let me tell you this:  If the first person that answers that door is not friendly or helpful — which they may not be, there are a lot of people that don’t want to help — then ask somebody ask.  And I want you to keep asking until you find somebody that’s going to get you in the right place.”

6. Once you’ve succeeded, help someone else.

“[W]hen that day comes, and you find yourself walking around campus like you own the place, which you all will be doing, okay — then I don’t want you to just pat yourself on the back and say good job.  I want you to reach back and help other young people like you find their path to success.  That’s your job now.  You all are mentors.”

7. Most of all, remember: You got this.

“The one reason I share my experience with you all is because I am no different from you all.  My parents didn’t have money.  I went to public school.  We didn’t have a whole lot of examples to follow, but I know that if I can do it, you can do it, too É  And I want you to hear that from me.  I want you to hear it from your First Lady:  As long as you’re willing to put in the work, you’re going to make this happen.  You can do this!”