One World International School recently had the opportunity to send five students to attend “An Evening with Michelle Obama” at Singapore Expo, during her book tour in Singapore. Our lucky students also got a chance to meet former First Lady, Mrs Obama, personally at a VIP gathering before the event where they were able to ask her questions. This is something that Luna Deller, Senior Coordinator at OWIS, who accompanied the students, will never forget.
Read her account below.
We knew that it was an unimaginable privilege to meet Michelle Obama, but none of us understood the full force of inspiration before the experience hit us. As we queued up for the individual meet and greet session, our OWIS students weren’t the only ones to be fanning themselves in excited anticipation.
My turn came first. Michelle hugged me and asked if Singapore was my home. I explained that I had brought five students from One World International School, who had been inspired by her work and were over the moon to have the opportunity to meet her. Michelle commented, correctly, that they must be brilliant students to have been selected. Then, one by one, the students had the opportunity to meet, hug and chat with the first African-American First Lady of the United States.
To each student, she was supportive and kind and gave individual and meaningful advice. The young people were in awe and completely speechless as they walked towards their seats, ready to listen to Michelle’s talk.
When we were told that we would be meeting and listening to this great woman, neither the students nor I had imagined how relevant to them her words would be. She talked openly and candidly about many aspects of her life; about miscarriage, losing her inspirational father and sustaining a marriage through difficult times. She also spoke about the complexities of political life and raising children with strong values in a life of privilege and prejudice. But most of her thoughts and advice were about navigating life as a young person and about how adults can support that journey.
Obama’s messages were particularly resonant of the values of OWIS. She explained how everyone’s story is important to tell and commented that the world is full of people striving to do the right thing, but that the narrowness of accepted power, limited by societal views of wealth, race, background and gender, stops these stories from being told.
OWIS’s notion of being at ‘One with the World’ is all about breaking down these barriers and giving all students, irrespective of background, their own voice and power. She asked our young people to understand that “journeys are hard for all of us” and that “the self-doubts you have were put there by society”. Through this message, she explained something that lies in the heart of OWIS’s philosophy and that all members of our community hold dear - the importance of allowing children and young people a voice to ask questions but teaching them to do so respectfully and with kindness. As we all firmly believe, inquiry and the opportunity to question how the world works enable young people to understand for themselves how society functions and what needs to be done to make changes for the better.
On the subject of self-doubt, Michelle mentioned that earlier, a young lady had asked, “how do you deal with self-confidence?”. This question, asked by one of our OWIS students, had resonated with Mrs Obama and led her to explain that you have to practise to overcome self-doubt and imposter syndrome, especially if your background is different to the others at the table or the expected norms. As she emphasised, “I want children to know this: there’s no magic to getting here. It’s repetition and work. And failure. And doing it again and again and again”.
One question from the host was about career choices. Michelle referred to what she calls “box-checking”, which is following the expected course in the expected order and described her career path perfectly. From getting good grades at school to doing the same at college and law school and becoming a corporate lawyer, Obama’s career was an exercise in ‘box-checking’. She then talked about “swerving” - taking carefully considered diversions to this standard pathway, to fulfil one’s own goals and ambitions.
When she met Barack Obama, his influence encouraged her to move away from corporate law and into humanitarian work, which surprised her family and fellow professionals but, through planning and “swerving responsibly”, enabled her to find a career that fulfilled her both personally and professionally. She impressed upon the audience that “children today have to be flexible in their careers”, as the world is changing and professions are becoming very different from traditional roles. This is why, at OWIS, we talk about ‘future-proofing’ education. As the world changes, it is becoming more and more important that young people are able to access and interpret knowledge rather than simply memorise facts.
A number of things that Michelle talked about in terms of guiding young people will particularly resonate with the OWIS community. She stated, “I think I’m a wonderful parent because I had wonderful parents”. She was raised with strong values: that working hard, asking questions, being kind and being true to yourself were the steps to success. As parents, she feels that it was her and her husband’s joint responsibility to encourage their children to have a voice. She said, “If you want your children to have a voice, you have to give them a voice at your table”. As teachers and parents at OWIS, we know that developing an inquiring voice and by allowing students the safety and room to question the way the world works, is the way to raise confident and successful thinkers.
Our central value at OWIS is the culture of kindness. We believe that all members of the school community have a responsibility to be kind to one another and that once a place of kindness is reached, we will see the best from the community and success from our students. A famous quote of Obama’s explains how OWIS’ culture of kindness functions: “When they go low, we go high”. Michelle’s personal way of life mirrors this. She explained, “I wake up every day and I speak to people with kindness and empathy and I don’t expect that the same will come back to me”. Her message is clear: we are the ones with the power to raise the bar. Only when we act with kindness and take responsibility for how people around us feel, will society as a whole become kinder. As she noted, “We’re the ones that are going to save us”.