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First lady leads mentoring program for Washington-area students

By Sally Holland, CNN
  • The first lady is leading a mentoring effort for high school students
  • Michelle Obama invited more than 20 accomplished women to the White House
  • They fanned out through Washington-area schools with a message
  • Work hard and follow your dreams, they told students

Washington (CNN) -- First lady Michelle Obama invited more than 20 accomplished women to the White House on Wednesday, asking them to serve as mentors for area high school students.

The women, along with the first lady, fanned out across the District of Columbia and surrounding suburbs in the afternoon visiting six local high schools encouraging the teenagers to follow their dreams and work hard to get there.

"There is no magic to being here. You know, Barack and I were not born with silver spoons in our mouths and connections and money and resources. A lot of why we're where we are today is because we worked hard. We felt a deep passion for getting our education," the first lady told students at Ballou High school in Washington.

She recalled having to get up as a child at 6:30 a.m. to ride a bus for an hour and a half to attend a better high school across town, for better preparation for college.

"I know what it feels like to struggle to get the education that you need. In so many ways, I see myself in you all," Mrs. Obama shared. "And I want you to see yourselves in me, so that you're not looking at me just as the first lady of the United States."

Mrs. Obama's events on Wednesday were scheduled as part of the end of National Women's History month.

At Washington's Woodson High school, the four mentors included an Air Force general, a TV network executive, an actress and a gymnastics champion who all answered questions for more than 20 female students.

"Good, old-fashioned hard work, that is the only thing that separates you from the crowd," said actress Rashida Jones, currently starring in the television series "Parks and Recreation."

"Don't feel like you have to be defined by your circumstances," she added.

Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes told the students that they should keep their attitudes positive.

"Whenever I've gone into something with a negative attitude, something negative has come out of it," she said.

The students had several questions for Gen. Dana Born, currently dean of the faculty at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, including what it was like to be one of the few women attending the Air Force Academy when she began several decades ago, and whether or not she had ever felt discrimination for being a woman.

Born told the students that they needed to find their strength and then "practice, practice, practice" to reach success.

Nina Lederman, vice president for program development at Lifetime Networks told the students that she had originally wanted to be an actress, but when it became apparent that she didn't have the acting talent, she shifted to a career in production.

All 20 of the women mentors returned to the White House on Wednesday evening for dinner in the East Room with about 120 area students.

CNN's Becky Brittain contributed to this report.