Michelle Obama to girls: 'Push past those doubters'

Story highlights

  • 62 million girls don't have access to education, Michelle Obama says
  • First lady's commitment to Let Girls Learn will extend beyond the White House

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)When Michelle Obama traveled to Cambodia last summer as part of her Let Girls Learn initiative, she had a message for any girls facing barriers to education: Move beyond the "doubters."

It is something the first lady says she herself faced growing up. "There were some teachers that I ran into who doubted that a girl like me -- a black girl from the south side of Chicago -- should apply to Princeton or could get into Harvard," Michelle Obama said during a recent panel discussion at the American Magazine Media Conference.
    Those cultural barriers -- whether they be from within girls' own families or their communities or their countries, along with messages that girls are not smart enough or good enough to go to school -- are part of the reason why 62 million girls worldwide don't have access to education, a number the first lady is trying to dramatically reduce as part of Let Girls Learn, the program she and the President launched exactly one year ago.
    "As I told those girls in Cambodia, our job is to push past those doubters and to find those caring adults that see the positive in us because they are out there," she said. "Because for all the people that told me I couldn't do it, I had parents who believed deeply in my ability to do whatever I wanted to do."
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    Now in her final year as first lady, Obama is more than comfortable injecting the personal into her messaging, and firmly believes that by sharing her personal story, she can connect to young girls everywhere.
    "When you're the first lady or you're an actress, you're larger in life to many girls living in poor communities, living in urban cities, not just here in the United States, but around the world. You seem untouchable," she said, on a panel along with actresses Julianne Moore and Lena Dunham, and moderated by Lesley Jane Seymour of More magazine.
    "And for me, it is so important for kids, in particular, to understand that I am them, they are me."

    Consequences of barriers are 'devastating'

    A big component of Let Girls Learn is raising awareness about the plight of adolescent girls worldwide who are not able to attend and complete school, something the first lady did again Tuesday in connection with International Women's Day.
    "I'm passionate about this because I truly see myself in these girls -- in their hunger, in their burning determination to rise above their circumstances and reach for something more. And I know that many of you do, too," said Obama during a speech in Washington marking the first anniversary of Let Girls Learn.
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    The first lady also announced how dozens of companies have together donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the effort, and how others are creating products to raise awareness or promote Let Girls Learn in their advertisements. More than 40 countries have also signed on to become Peace Corps Let Girls Learn countries, which means Peace Corps volunteers in those countries will get additional training and support so they can become "agents of change" for girls' education in their local communities, said Carrie Hessler-Radelet, director of the Peace Corps.
    "Because they live and work in their communities of service, Peace Corps volunteers have close relationships with girls and their families as well as village leaders, teachers, school administrators and others," said Hessler-Radelet during a conference call with reporters. "Working with these key stakeholders, volunteers help identify the specific local barriers to educating and empowering girls and the sustainable interventions needed to break down those barriers."
    The consequences of those barriers are "devastating," Obama said, citing how girls who aren't educated face higher rates of HIV, maternal mortality, infant mortality and higher birth rates. They also have lower wages, which impacts not just them, but their communities and their countries, and all of us, the first lady said, citing a study by the World Bank, which found that every year of secondary school education correlates with an 18% increase in a girls' future earning potential.
    That point was hammered home by my own 8-year-old daughter, unbeknownst to me, when she wrote an essay about why she thinks girls should get just as much education as boys.
    An essay written by my 8-year-old daughter
    "If you don't get a good education, you can't do a lot of things," she wrote. "For instance, you can't go to college or you can't get a good job and make money for your family." As someone who covers girl empowerment, I was blown away -- and thrilled -- that my daughter seems to have actually gotten the message, even at a such a young age.
    If we have "more educated, empowered people in the world buying products and producing goods, and spending resources and traveling and learning -- that's going to impact our economy, as well," the first lady said.

    An unconventional media strategy

    Obama has taken that message to unusual places, from sitting down with YouTube sensation Michelle Phan to being part of an episode on "Project Runway Junior." Her unconventional media strategy -- think dancing with Jimmy Fallon and rapping about college -- is all part of a very well-thought effort on how to reach young people, she said.
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    "It's simple: Who are we trying to get our message to? And oftentimes, we're trying to talk to young people," she said. "And as a mom living with two generation Zers, I think that's what you all are called. You're Zers -- teens with an attitude. I've got two of them in my house," she said to laughter in the audience. "They're on their phones. They're not watching the evening news. They're not reading The New York Times. No offense, but they're not. So we have to try to reach them where they are."
    The first lady said she's just adapting to the changing times, and is convinced that if Eleanor Roosevelt were alive today, she would have a Twitter account, because that's how people communicate today.
    There might be different platforms for the "next first spouse" that they'll need to use to communicate with the audiences they are trying to reach, she said, joking that the audience "caught" her use of the phrase "first spouse," which would certainly apply if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency and her husband takes on the role that has always gone to a woman before him.
    "I'm just being neutral, because, you know, the world is big and interesting," she said.

    Life after the White House

    As for life beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the first lady said the issues of increasing access to girls' education around the world and educating children in the United States -- including encouraging them to go on to college -- are issues that she plans to tackle for a very long time. "When we leave office in a year, as Barack and I say, we'll still be young. We still got some life in us," she said. "So we're in the process of thinking through how do we best use the next phase, the next platform that we have to continue to impact the issues that we care about."
    She compares her post-White House life to her thoughts as she prepared to become first lady. People would ask her what her platform was going to be, she said. "I was like, 'Really. I don't even know what that platform is going to feel like, so I can't answer that question.' I don't know what that role is going to be."
    She says she feels the same way about the next phase of her life and what she's going to do. "I don't know what it will feel like to be the former first lady and what power or voice I will have, and how to best use that effectively. I'll know better when I'm there."
    What do you think is the best way to help girls learn? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.