Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Michelle tells students: 'Work hard and don't be afraid to fail'


Oliver Wright
Thursday 26 May 2011 00:00 BST

She spoke framed between portraits of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in the grandest and most elite of Oxford colleges that has educated thirteen Prime Ministers.

Her audience were 40 young girls from an inner London state school - turned down by a Tony Blair for his daughter - where 50 languages are spoken.

It was symbolism laid on with a trowel - but somehow still strangely affecting.

Despite being tall, in person Michelle Obama is smaller than she appears on television. And she seemed dwarfed - almost cowed - by her surroundings in the great hall of Christchurch College as she spoke quietly without a microphone because of a technical glitch.

"I remember how well-meaning but misguided people questioned whether someone with my background could succeed at an elite university," she said.

"When I was accepted I had all kinds of worries and doubts.

"I wouldn't be as well prepared as students from privileged families and I wouldn't fit in.

"But you are just as capable and have just as much to offer as anyone else," she told them.

This was Mrs Obmama's only solo outing during the state visit and part two of an unusual relationship which she has struck up with the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson College in Islington.

Two years ago on her first visit to the UK she visited the school - where one in five pupils are the children of refugees - and it struck a chord.

"I want you to know that we have very much in common," she told them then.

Yesterday she returned to meet the pupils but this time at Christchurch College where they were taking part in an open day run to improve Oxford's still poor record on diversifying student intake.

In a question and answer session with the girls Mrs Obama was asked why she married her husband ("I always thought he would be useful but I had no idea he would be President").

What it was like being First Lady ("It goes from very mundane and normal to 'Oh my God who could ever have dreamed of that'"). To when will there be a female President in the White House ("Hilary Clinton is a fabulous leader and my husband had a formidable opponent.")

Her message - which she repeated time and again - was work hard, have self belief, don't be afraid to ask questions and don't be afraid to fail.

It was Evangelical, very un-British, but rather effective. Afterwards there were hugs for everyone and a photo in the grand Christchurch quad.

And watching the group of multi-cultural young Briton's surround her amid the splendour of the college building two thoughts stood out.

Had Mrs Obama been born in Britain she would almost certainly not have made it to Oxford as she did to Harvard.

But now - thanks in part to her - some of these children just might. Symbolism indeed.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in