Former first lady Michelle Obama waves at students as she enters a discussion at Spelman College on Saturday, May 11, 2019, about her memoir, “Becoming.” HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Michelle Obama in Spelman College visit tells students they can excel

A group of students from Spelman and Morehouse colleges who’ve been studying Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming,” had a special visitor Saturday to discuss her work — the former first lady herself.

Obama came to Spelman to talk with the students about the best-selling book before her sold-out appearance Saturday night at State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta.

Obama encouraged the 18 students to have faith in themselves, saying she learned through her eight years in the White House and elsewhere that she is as smart and capable as the well-educated and famous leaders she encountered.

Obama used a phrase made famous by Atlanta civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to emphasize her point.

“I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen it. You’re deserving and worthy,” Obama said.

She later added, “The biggest challenge to overcome now is believing in yourself.”

The students spent this past semester studying “Becoming” - written by the first African American to be first lady - as a foundational text for their political science class “Black Women: Developing Public Leadership Skills.” The students occasionally take courses on each other’s campus. Spelman and Morehouse, located near downtown Atlanta, are two of Georgia’s nine accredited historically black colleges and universities.

Several dozen students and others behind a barricade cheered and waved at Obama when she arrived on campus.

Students wait outside for former first lady Michelle Obama as she talks to students from Spelman College and Morehouse College at Giles Hall on the Spelman College campus on Saturday, May 11, 2019. The students spent this past semester studying Obama’s book “Becoming” as a foundational text of their political science class “Black Women: Developing Public Leadership Skills.” HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Obama has some familiarity with Spelman. She was the college’s commencement speaker in 2011.

The former first lady asked jokingly when she arrived for the discussion inside Spelman’s Giles Hall if the students fell asleep reading her book. No way, the students replied.

Spelman junior Jordan Barefield said “Becoming” has increased her motivation to continue her pursuit of a career in public service, saying the examples set by the Obamas was “inspiring.”

“Being able to dissect that has been a blessing,” said Barefield, a political science major. “This is unbelievable.”

Morehouse student Lanarion Norwood told Obama her book motivated him.

“I have to be the fruits of my labor and grow for my country,” Norwood said.

Obama approvingly snapped her fingers several times after his remarks and said “you’re hired” to laughter.

Former first lady Michelle Obama snaps her fingers approvingly as she meets with students from Spelman College and Morehouse College on Saturday, May 11, 2019. The students spent this past semester studying her memoir “Becoming” as a foundational text of their political science class “Black Women: Developing Public Leadership Skills.” HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Reporters were not allowed to ask questions during the portion of the student version open to the media.

Obama talked about her own experiences as a student at Princeton University, where she encountered some people who felt she didn’t belong at the Ivy League school.

“If you still believe here today as students at Morehouse and Spelman that you are not good enough, it’s not about something that’s happened to you today, it’s probably a part of what you’ve heard and seen consistently throughout your life. And that’s your story that you have to own and have to understand,” she said. “That’s what this book is about. You’ve got to be able to go over the moments in your life that brought you to a moment of joy and happiness or broke you down and be able to understand how has that made you who you are today and what are you going to do to recalibrate.”

Former first lady Michelle Obama reacts as she meets with students from Spelman College and Morehouse College ahead of her book tour event later in the evening at State Farm Arena Saturday night. She was at Giles Hall on the Spelman College campus on Saturday, May 11, 2019. The students spent this past semester studying Becoming as a foundational text of their political science class “Black Women: Developing Public Leadership Skills.” HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Eleven-year-old Zoe Turner was able to sit in on part of the discussion. She said Obama’s remarks reinforced some lessons from her parents, who brought her to Spelman.

“If somebody tells me you can’t do something, don’t listen to them,” Turner said. “Always believe.”

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