WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama promoted the value of a college education and hard work Thursday, telling high school students that the people who doubted her when she was younger only encouraged her to aim higher.
"That never stopped me. That always made me push harder," she said.
Mrs. Obama's appearance at Anacostia High School was part of a day in which she put an array of talented, accomplished women in front of area high school students as an example of the types of success they, too, can achieve if they are willing to work hard for it.
The group included Grammy Award-winning singers Alicia Keyes and Sheryl Crow, actresses and sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad, actress Fran Drescher, Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes, WNBA star Lisa Leslie Lockwood and Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel into space. Also participating were Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first woman to achieve the four-star rank; actresses Alfre Woodard, Kerry Washington and Tracee Ellis Ross; and Debra Lee, president and CEO of the parent company of the BET cable network.
"Our job is simple: just be open, be honest, be real, be clear and have fun," Mrs. Obama told the group, which gathered in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House for the event, part of the first lady's celebration of March as Women's History Month.
The group was returning to the White House later Thursday for an East Room dinner with Mrs. Obama and even more students.
Mrs. Obama traveled alone; the group fanned out to 10 other schools in the District of Columbia and its suburbs.
At Anacostia, one of the city's lowest-performing schools, 13 students chosen by their teachers asked Mrs. Obama whether her life is still normal, why daughters Malia and Sasha didn't come, what does the family do for fun, and whether she does her own makeup and picks out what she wears. They also asked about her transition from high school to college, and how she got to be the first lady.
Life is still normal, despite living in the White House with Secret Service agents. Her daughters were at school. The family does a lot of "kids stuff" for fun. She chooses her own outfits and does her own makeup, except for special events like Thursday's, she said.
Mrs. Obama told them she always worked really hard and that they should, too.
"I wanted an A ... I wanted to be smart, I wanted to be the person who had the right answer," said Mrs. Obama, a lawyer and former hospital executive in Chicago. "I ran into people in my life who told me, 'You can't do it, you're not as smart as that person.' And that never stopped me. That always made me push harder, because I was like, 'I'm going to prove you wrong.'"
She encouraged the students to pursue a college education because of the doors it will open. There's no need for them to know what they want to be before they get to college, she said, emphasizing that the goal is simply to get there and that it begins with hard work.
Some of the students have already been accepted to college.
"College is being able to get up and discipline yourself and get help when you need it and to work hard and not give up," Mrs. Obama said. "Those are like basic concepts that carry you through life."
It's what she's trying to teach Malia and Sasha, she said.
"They have to get up, set their alarms, get their own breakfasts, make up their beds and put on their clothes and get to school on time," Mrs. Obama said. Malia, 10, had to leave the White House by 6:30 a.m. Thursday and woke herself up 45 minutes earlier to do it, the first lady said.
At Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, Crow and Jemison addressed about 80 students from biology, physics and chorus classes.
Crow said music helped boost her self-esteem while she was growing up in small-town Missouri.
"It made me feel like I had my own identity as well as it became a comfortable place when things were not so easy," she said.
Jemison, who was a doctor before joining NASA, said that while she loved science growing up, she loved dancing and the arts, too.
"What I found myself having to do was to figure out how to choose the right pieces to end up in the right place to go," she said. "I studied, but at the same time I did I made sure each moment was one that I felt good about, but that it was moving me forward."