Christ Church’s dining hall, already renowned for its Harry Potter links, was today packed with press and University staff attending the much anticipated visit of the First Lady.
Michelle Obama addressed girls from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, which she had visited on a previous trip to London. She said, “I wanted to visit you all again in a place like this’, noting that Oxford ‘has trained some of the brightest minds and the greatest leaders.”
Mrs Obama delivered an inspiring address to the school girls, saying, “To succeed at a place like this…you just have to work hard, you have to push yourself. More importantly you have to believe in yourself.”
She said Oxford is a “very special place”, and insisted to the school girls that, “You all belong here, this is a place for you as well.”
54% of EGA pupils receive free school meals, putting it in the top 2% of schools in the country in terms of deprivation. 59 languages are spoken amongst its 900 pupils.
Mrs Obama spoke reverently of Clarissa Pabi, a star pupil at EGA who is now a second year English student at St Anne’s. The First Lady told the assembled girls,“If any of you ever start to doubt yourselves, I want you to remember Clarissa’s story, if mine somehow doesn’t resonate. I want you to remember that she started out just like all of you.’
Pabi, who is president of the Oxford Poetry Society, also spoke to the girls, urging her former schoolmates to “construct your own image”.
Mrs Obama told the girls, “When you eventually get to a place like Oxford, I want each and every one of you to reach back and help others. I want you to get [your classmates] excited about what you’ve seen here today.”
Mo Chatterji, a second year at St John’s, was one of the student mentors who accompanied the EGA pupils on a day that included talks, workshops and lunch at Wadham College. He commented that the day was an “excellent experience”, but even more so for the girls who “got so much” out of it.
He said that Michelle Obama was able to talk to the pupils on a “personal level”, and that they could identify with her experience of overcoming the obstacle of a poor background.
Chatterji added that everyone had got hugs from Obama. “She was pretty cool,” he said, “very personable, very friendly.”
The First Lady told the EGA pupils, ‘I remember how well-meaning, but misguided, people sometimes questioned whether someone with my background could succeed at an elite university.’
After her speech to the girls, Mrs Obama took their questions. Asked her how she found her life as First Lady, Mrs Obama said it was a strange mix between helping her daughters with homework and spending the night in Buckingham Palace. “It’s kinda cool”, she added.
Another girl asked, ‘When you met the president did you think he would go on to achieve something special?’
Mrs Obama replied, ‘When I met him I knew he was a special person. It was how he felt about his mother; his work ethic, he was smart, and he was fun. We joked a lot.”
Obama said that she was “telling secrets” to the assembled audience, describing her husband as “cute”.
She added, “I always thought he’d be useful…I never thought he’d be president.”
The First Lady also gave personal answers when asked about raising her children in the White House.
She said, ‘I call myself mom-in-chief not because I don’t value my career or education … but the most important thing to me is raising strong women because that’s what my mother did for me.’