As her own daughter Sasha prepares to start college, Michelle Obama has some clear-eyed advice for freshmen — and it makes plain that the former first lady has a vivid idea of what campus life is like.
Obama, 55, sat down Tuesday with some 100 first-generation college-bound students, continuing an annual tradition she began in the White House as part of her Reach Higher initiative, which encourages underrepresented and low-income students to continue their education beyond high school.
On everything from diet to partying to splurging, Obama, a 1985 graduate of Princeton University who went on to earn a law degree from Harvard University, got real at the fifth annual “Beat the Odds” Summit, held at Howard University.
For starters, she told the students who will be the first in their families to go to college not to be intimidated by any of the more cocksure classmates they’re likely to encounter.
“You always think that somebody else knows more than you do. I’ve been at probably every powerful table there is to be at. I have been on boards with some of the top CEOs. I’ve had dinner with the frickin’ Queen! I’ve been to the summit of world leaders. … They’re not smarter than you,” Obama said with a smirk. “I’ve met these people.”
Here are some of the former first lady’s other blunt takes on what awaits the class of 2023:
‘We’re All Faking It’
A child of Chicago’s South Side, Obama told students — in the parlance of kids these days — that they can expect to feel out of place on campus and to question whether they belong, whether they are smart enough to succeed:
“No matter how much you may front [or fake it], there’s a part of you that’s wondering whether this was a mistake and whether I belong … because those were the messages I had going on in my head, and they still come up through life. It’s like, Am I really good enough? Because those demons are deep in us. And because we live in a country that sometimes wants you to feel that way. They want you to feel like you don’t belong.”
Even so, Obama said, “Walk on those campuses and fake some confidence, because you’re going to be faking it for a while.”
“We’re all faking it,” she said, adding, “It’s going to be okay as long as you don’t quit.”
Beware the ‘Dangerous Cocktail’ of Freedom
Obama cautioned students to be attentive to their mental health — to feeling “homesick, having some depression, some anxiety, just being nervous” — because mental wellness is “one of the pegs to success.”
“In order to have good mental health, it’s not just counseling. It’s trying to live a balanced life,” she said. “Whether you’re getting exercise really does matter. [Ask yourself] am I walking enough? Am I moving around? Am I just sitting in my room in the dark and I’m not getting outside and breathing in fresh air?”
What you’re eating also affects how you’re feeling, Obama said. And college can be a petri dish of unhealthy habits.
“You get to college and it’s like, ‘I’m just going to eat chips, French fries and ice cream because — you know, you’re free! And you’ll say the dorm food isn’t all that good,” she said, acknowledging that she was slipping into “mom” mode. “You gotta have some vegetables. You cannot just eat carbs for four years. You’ll start feeling that and you’ll wonder, Why am I so sluggish?”
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Obama also posited that some typical college behavior — like “partying too much” — might be a way of “self-medicating” stress.
“Think of the dangerous cocktail of what college provides: young people on their own for the first time, feeling stress, being able to eat what they want, stay up as late as they want. And smoking and drinking. Everyone’s getting there thinking, ‘I’m free! I’m going to do it all!’ That’s a combustible combination. You need to be thinking, ‘Am I partying a little too hard? Am I staying up too late?’ “
These things, she said, “Stop you on your journey and you don’t even know why.”
“Recognize your own panic points and when and how to get the support that you need on campus. Nobody’s going to come and say, ‘Ooh girl, you look stressed! You need to see somebody,’ ” she said.
Too many freshmen drop out of school because they miss home and mistake that feeling for a sign that college was a mistake, Obama said. “You can’t make that conclusion about your experience in the first semester. You’ve got to give it some time. You’ve got to give yourself patience.”
Don’t Blow Your Financial Aid!
Some of Obama’s toughest advice underscored her understanding of the pressures Reach Higher students often confront as they head off to higher education with the help of student loans and scholarships.
“This is a tough thing to talk about and it’s a pressure that a lot of first-gen kids have because it’s that pressure from home,” Obama said. “When you get your loan check — they’re going to give you a check — it might be $10,000, it might be $15,000, and it’s tempting to think that money is yours and that you can use it to help everybody.”
“First of all,” she cautioned, “it’s not used to help everybody. And it’s not used to pay for a stereo system and those bad shoes and those nice nails. In college you are broke. You don’t have extra money. It might feel like extra money, but it’s not. Because if you spend it on something other than your books or your tuition or your food and you run out, it’s not going to be like, ‘Oh, here’s a little bit more!’ You are done. Your loan is gone.”
“And you can’t use that loan money to pay the electric bill at home,” she continued. “Even if people are calling you, telling you, ‘We having trouble, honey. I know you just got a check—.’ “
“You cannot help folks back home until you are done with you,” she said, acknowledging the difficulty of that reality.
“Life at home does not stop,” she said. “The struggle that you come from is still there. You probably have siblings, moms dad, people who are sick, folks who are struggling, people who need rent paid. And you feel a little torn. … You’ll feel like this is frivolous when you know the challenges your family might be facing.”
But “you are not in a position to save anybody right now,” she told the assembled students. “And if you start trying to save other people before you finish this journey, you’ll never finish it. And here’s the thing: You’ll still owe the money.”