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.
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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.
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.”
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.”