“Through my journey so far, I’ve found that in a lot of circles I’ve been entering, I’m had to justify. prove why I deserve to be in those circles … kind of like your experiences … as you fight those mental and psychological struggles … what would you say when you have to continuously justify why you deserve to be where you are?”
“Chapter Three,” Michael-Key deadpanned to laughter, before Obama addressed a question that many of the young men, all striving in an atmosphere where expectations for them aren’t as high as they should, or could be, said:
“One of the things that I point out and I want you all to remember is: There’s all kinds of affirmative action in this world, especially in colleges. Colleges have the responsibilities and right to apply students who look like a bunch of different things. They admit because they’re athletes. They admit people because they’re scholars. They admit people because they’re musicians. They admit students because they’re wealthy, and their parents will donate. They admit students because there’s an alumni connection, so the question you should ask people who approach you is: Why is your status questioned versus anyone else’s?
“Universities are looking for — and should be looking for — a diverse array of experiences, people from different backgrounds because if everybody looked the same and experienced life the same way, what would these conversations be like, just a bunch of people agreeing with each other? But the other thing you have to remember is that they admitted you for a reason. None of these schools want to have high attrition. I’ve worked for universities. … I’ve been a dean of students. I know that schools think long and hard before they let anybody in because they don’t want you to fail because that looks bad on them. … They want you to succeed, so you’re there because they know that you can.
“So … you’re the person that has to get out of your head. Trust me. It will continue beyond college, no matter where we go. There were people who thought that Barack couldn’t be a good president. There were people who questioned whether I would be a good first lady. My brother gets questioned all the time about whether he’s qualified or able, and we all face those things. That doesn’t go away. But you have to practice knowing who you are and focus on just doing the work day by day. That’s really all you can do.”
And in just that moment, with that short speech to those 18 young men, those future doctors, actors, engineers, psychologists, architects, sports reporters, automotive designers, computer scientists, physical therapists, she gave them the world according to Michelle Obama, the world she has been explaining on how she became.
For every young person, male or female, who is becoming and trying to figure out how, her advice is apt. But something Michael-Key said applies as well.
“If you’re here, you’re supposed to be here,” he told them. “We have an ocean of doubt swirling around us all the time, but if you’re here you’re supposed to be here.”
Those young men, who will remember yesterday and the lesson for a lifetime, must also remember something widely attributed to W.C. Fields: It’s not what they call you. It’s what you answer to.
And that is why Obama’s book — and story — are so important. As we, whether we are women, men, American, African-American, political or not, decide what we are becoming, we must choose to be comfortable knowing that no one else can decide where we belong.