As a part of Texas State's First-Gen Week, in partnership with universities and colleges across the country, Common Experience hosted a virtual live stream starring writer, lawyer and former First Lady of the U.S. Michelle Obama on Tuesday, Nov. 9.
A group of select students from across the nation represented their universities and participated in a Q&A session with Obama. Mckayla Maldonado, an exploratory professional freshman, represented Texas State at the event. She was selected from a pool of applicants of first year, first-gen students at Texas State and was one of 14 students on the panel.
The event, "Becoming: Michelle Obama in Conversation," was moderated by actress, model and activist Yara Shahidi. Obama also discussed her memoir "Becoming" and heard from the students about their college experiences.
Sponsored by the Texas State University Lecture Series, University College, Common Experience and First Gen Proud, the event began with an introduction by Shahidi in which she presented Obama and her New York Times bestseller "Becoming." The introduction led to conversations on how students can honor their identities, communities and passions as they discover their individual paths.
The Q&A session included conversations on the leadership duties and capabilities of younger generations. Obama mentioned the importance of students stepping outside their comfort zones as they navigate college and prepare to step out into the real world. She said while it is important to have a group of people to feel comfortable with, it is easy to get lost in the comfortability of an inner circle.
"The world is becoming increasingly more diverse, not less diverse. And understanding the views and the experiences of other people, that is where you hope it happens — on a college campus," Obama said.
Obama earned her bachelor's degree in sociology from Princeton University and a Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School. As someone who grew up on the south side of Chicago, Obama writes in her memoir about her experiences of stepping out of her family's bubble once she got to college. She offered advice to students who may feel stuck in where they are now without an idea of what their next steps are.
"Being First Lady gave me the opportunity to travel around the world, around the country, and to go into communities and cities and towns that I would normally not go into," Obama said. "And what did I find? I found a lot of sameness. I found a lot of people who live in small communities who don't feel afraid to step outside of that or we don't even know that there's another place to go ... these aren't unique feelings, you know. But they're grounded, as I see it, in fear, right? What allowed me to step outside of my small six-block area, it was practicing pushing through that fear, right? Practicing transition. Practicing facing that precipice, that thing you feel in your stomach, that thing in your brain that tells you to hold back when your heart and soul tell you to go ahead."
After becoming the first in her family to graduate college, she joined the Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin, where she later met her husband Barack Obama.
Obama then discovered her passion for working with people to serve their communities and neighbors. She served as assistant commissioner of planning and development in Chicago's City Hall before becoming the founding executive director of the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program that prepares youth for public service. As the first African American First Lady of the U.S., she became a role model and advocate for healthy families, service members, higher education and international adolescent girls’ education.
In her memoir, Obama writes about her experiences as a first-generation college student and graduate. She said she understands the uncertainty that comes with navigating college when there is no one to lead the way.
"I think one of the most beautiful things about my parents' parenting was they pushed us beyond their fears. They encouraged us to do what they told us they were afraid to do," Obama said. "But the more you practice pushing beyond that point of comfort, the easier it gets. Every new thing is gonna feel the same way ... treat fear as a challenge."
In the same way, she wants young people to practice facing their fears. Obama also talked about the importance of practicing positive affirmations and self-care, especially with the younger generation's attachment to social media.
"I want to encourage you all as young people to be aware of the fact that it's not the people outside who are saying stuff about you, you know, it's what you're saying about yourself every day. It's what you allow in," Obama said. "One of the best ways to combat that is to make sure that you are taking in positive information as much as you can about yourself."
The event concluded with a question from Maldonado about identity and facing obstacles that come from not fitting in. In her parting piece of advice, Obama answered the question by reminding students to take care of themselves and worry about graduating before anything else.
"To be honest with you, I didn't focus on that in college," Obama said. "Now is the time for you to be self-protective. You may not be able to change hearts and minds in college, but you can start opening up some doors. Your goal is to graduate. That's how you're going to help your community, your family, our country. Finish that, you know, and note the lessons learned. Do what you can where you can and keep pushing it."