She has become one of the most admired first ladies of all time, in the period of just one year. She was compared with Princess Diana, for her ability to connect with people. Like Lady Di, Michelle shows genuine interest in people, and wins them over.
The politicians criticized her for her views, her honesty and her jokes. The public fell in love with her for her being genuine and intelligent, warm and compassionate. Watching her public appearances is a pleasure: she stands out from the other wives of the heads of state without an effort. She has a presence… It is easy to think that Michelle was born with these qualities. However, the truth is that Michelle Obama is a self-made person, whose path has not been easy.
Here is her story.
Michelle Obama – years at school
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on January 17, 1964, in Chicago, Illinois.
The father of Michelle, Fraser Robinson III, used to be a talented boxer and swimmer. He was diagnosed multiple sclerosis when he was thirty, about one year after Michelle was born. "He didn’t complain – ever. He put his energy into us," said Michelle later about her father. Michelle and her brother Craig learned early about responsibilities. For their results at school, for their family, for doing their best to succeed. Like their parents, Craig and Michelle skipped the second grade of elementary school.
Fraser and Marian Robinsons taught their children to speak their minds and never hesitate to question authority. This ability would not make her road to success any easier. However, it did define Michelle’s character and her dedication to people who struggle with life’s challenges.
Michelle learned from her mother to take independent steps toward her education instead of just expecting it to come to her. In the sixth grade Michelle started learning in the school’s program for advanced students. She began learning French three years before it was offered in ninth grade. She took biology classes at Kennedy-King College.
Michelle finished school second in her class of more than one hundred students. The confidence she gained, led her to other challenging experiences.
Michelle Obama – high school
She chose her school for herself, and it was an ambitious choice. Whitney M. Young was known for it’s superior academics and the opportunities it offered to it’s best students. For Michelle it meant daily trips of three hours in city buses, and more hard work at home. However, she had already learned to take on new challenges. Her classmates described Michelle as a highly focused person. At the age of thirteen, she seemed to know exactly what her goals were. She made the honor roll all four years, and was inducted into the National Honor Society.
The lesson she learned for herself, was summarized by Michelle Obama in her speech during her meeting with girls at a community center for kids in public housing, in South Carolina in 2008.
"You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way… The thing that made me different from a lot of other kids who didn’t have opportunities was that I tried new stuff and I wasn’t afraid to be uncomfortable… There is a lot of opportunity out there. But you’ve got to want it."
Michelle Obama – years at Princeton.
She applied and was accepted, even though, according to the counselor from the high school, her test scores were not high enough. Michelle had been probably not the best in the tests, but she knew she was an impressive student, and she had learned to aim high. Princeton represented to her the wider perspective, the world of opportunities.
At that time Princeton was considered difficult for women of any race. The discussions about admitting minorities added to the picture. In spite of it, Michelle managed quickly to find her balance, academically and socially.
Instead of joining the traditional social clubs, Michelle chose for the Third World Center, which had been established by minority students. She also worked at the center as a coordinator of an after-school child care program for children of Princeton’s lunchroom and maintenance staff. Her ability to bond with children was remarkable, and some of the friendships she made with children at that time, continue to this day.
The friends she made at Princeton, remember Michelle as a balanced, focused, funny and energetic person, ambitious in her academic results.
Michelle Obama – Harvard
She chose for the most prestigious law school in the country, Harvard. Later she would admit that she was not thrilled by her studies. In one of the interviews she admitted:
"The thing about these wonderful schools is they can be surprisingly narrowing to your perspective. You can be a lawyer or you can work on Wall Street; those are the conventional options…"
For her, the most interesting and fulfilling part of her years at Harvard, was at a legal aid office run by the students. The legal aid office handled the cases for the poor clients who could not afford a lawyer. Michelle spent a lot of time there.
Michelle Obama – after Harvard.
After Harvard she took a job at a Chicago law firm, Sidley & Austin. Despite the fact that her salary was very good for a young lawyer, she still felt that she could not fulfil her desire for an interesting work.
One of her assignments was to mentor a summer associate from Harvard Law, Barack Obama. This associate was older than the usual associates, because he had not gone to law school right after college.
Their mutual liking was immediate. However, it would take a long time before Michelle would agree to date. She wanted to keep their relationship professional. And she wanted to focus on her job. It was not easy for Barack Obama to melt the ice of her friendly, professional attitude.
But the truth was that Barack was the person that fascinated her. Some of their dates were not conventional, like when he took her to church basements for community meetings. Michelle recalled:
"He was able to articulate a vision that resonated with people, that was real. And right then and there, I decided this guy was special. The authenticity you see is real, and that’s why I fell in love with him."
They got married in October 1992.
Michelle Obama – a vital career change
One of the most important persons in her life, her father was not present at her wedding day. He died in 1991, about a year and a half before Michelle and Barack were married. He was fifty-five years old. Michelles world changed. She started to think more about life and her own mission on earth. And she decided to quit her job with the law firm, the decision that was almost shocking to a lot of people who knew her.
She explained: "You can make money and have a nice degree. But what are you learning about giving back to the world, and finding your passion and letting that guide you, as opposed to the school you got into?"
Barack’s influence also played its role. And his advice to Michelle was to follow her heart.
Her next job was in the Chicago city government, where she held a position of an Assistant to the Mayor, and an Assistant Commissioner of Planning and Development. The job let her focus on solving the problems with Chicago neighborhoods, the problems she knew very well. This job paid less, but was much more fulfilling.
Michelle Obama – letting the passion guide
Her life choices had hever been conventional. And the opportunities followed her way.
Another job opportunity was with a charity called Public Allies, which had chosen Chicago as a location of its second office. In an interview Michelle recalled:
"It sounded risky and just out there. But for some reason it just spoke to me. This was the first time I said, ‘This is what I say I care about. Right here. And I will have to run it.’"
She became an executive director, and another pay cut followed. Michelle stayed at Public Alies for four years. During this time the Chicago Office became the strongest in the country. She had built the strong board of advisers and set the records of the fundraising. She had built the Public Alies activities in Chicago to last.
In 1996 Michelle started working for the University of Chicago. Her first position there was associate dean of student services. Later in 2002, she began working for the for the University of Chicago Hospitals, first as executive director for community affairs, then as a Vice President.
In 1997 the political career of her husband began, when Barack Obama was sworn in with the rest of the Senate in January 1997. This was a difficult time for their marriage. In July 1998, their first daughter Malia Ann was born. Their second daughter Natasha (Sasha) was born in June 2001. Michelle found herself in a new role: a working mother with two small children whose husband was often away from home. It required time and efforts of both of them to adapt to their new roles and maintain their relationship. In an interview to Vogue Michelle said:
"I spent a lot of time expecting my husband to fix things. But then I came to realize that he was there in the ways he could be. If he wasn’t there, it didn’t mean he wasn’t a good father or didn’t care. I saw it could be my mom or a great baby-sitter who helped. Once I was okay with that, my marriage got better."
Michelle Obama – the First Lady in the spotlights
It took time before the country could figure out Michelle. She was very honest, inpredictable and funny. She did not test her words for political correctness. She aroused extreme anger, criticism and fear. However, the voters just loved Michelle Obama the way she was.
Later, she was listed by Essence magazine among 25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women. She became the role model for the millions of women. Seemingly without any effort on her part, her honesty, intelligence, compassion and charm made her one of the most popular famous women in the world.
"…The only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work hard for them."
Michelle Obama on making life choices
Her advice to other women is:
"Find your spot. Wear what you love. Choose the careers that may have meaning to you, because there’s always somebody who will say, ‘I wouldn’t have worn that colour, or why didn’t you work at that job.’
But if you’re comfortable in the choice and it resonates with you, then all that other stuff… it’s just conversation. People have the right to have conversations.
But think that’s one thing we as women sometimes do – we don’t make choices that have meaning to us. And then when those things fall apart, you have to have yourself to fall back on."
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