2:15 P.M. (Local)
MRS. OBAMA: Well, hello! (Applause.) Please sit. Yes. You all look wonderful. Has it been a good day?
MRS. OBAMA: Yeah? Exciting? It’s good.
Well, I want to start by thanking Vice Chancellor Price for, number one, that very kind introduction and for his words, but more importantly for all the work that he’s doing at this phenomenal university.
I also want to send greetings and say hello and thank you to Dr. Ramphele. She is fabulous. (Laughter.) We got to talk outside. We could have been talking for hours, but we’ll do that later. (Laughter.) But I am grateful to have her join us today and more importantly for her lifetime of leadership and sacrifice for this country. She is a true model. Her generation is the generation that we all will be standing — whose shoulders we will stand on. So I am excited to have her talk to all of you.
But before I begin, I want to recognize yesterday’s passing of Kader Asmal, and I want everyone here to know that the thoughts and prayers of my family and my country are with all of you as you mourn another of this nation’s great anti-apartheid leaders.
As I just said, his generation fought its battles so that today’s young people, all of you, no matter where you come from or what you look like, could have the opportunities to shape your own futures and the futures of this country and this world.
And that’s why I like to talk with all of you young people, and that’s what I want to talk with you about today. I want to talk to you about opportunity, because whenever I travel as First Lady, my highest priority is to meet with young people just like all of you, because, number one, you’re beautiful and handsome and really cool. (Laughter.) But whether I’m in London or Mexico City, Mumbai or Santiago, every time I visit with young people, I come away inspired. A lot of young people don’t understand that, because people like us, we need to be inspired, too, and you all do that.
I come away with the same feeling that Robert Kennedy spoke of during his historic speech right here at this university 45 years ago. And he said — and this is his quote — “As I talk to young people around the world, I’m impressed not by the diversity but by the closeness of their goals, their desires and their concerns and their hope for the future.”
And that’s exactly how I feel. That’s been my experience. I can see the same promise in all of you as I do in my own girls. That’s what keeps me motivated. When I see you, I see them. When I see them, I see you. And I see it in the students that I’ve met all across my country in America, and in all of the young men and women I see as I travel around the world.
And I want to make sure that you all see that promise in yourselves. It’s so clear to me and so many others. The challenge is to make sure you see it in yourselves. And that’s why I thought it would be wonderful to have you all come here to the University of Cape Town, and so many other people thought so, too, right?
I wanted you all to have the chance to walk around this beautiful campus, right? It’s beautiful here. As I was saying to one of my assistants, who wouldn’t want to spend a few years here? Oh, what else are you going to do? It’s beautiful here — to meet the professors, to spend some time with some of the students.
I wanted you to see that the students here are really not that different from all of you. I wanted you to realize that you can fit in here, too. This is a place for you, because while this is an extraordinary university with top-notch programs and all kinds of famous alumni, getting into a school like this isn’t some kind of magical process. And I’ve said this before. People always ask me — how do you do what you do? It isn’t magic. There is no magic dust that helps students succeed at a place like this.
Instead, nowadays it is really about how hard you’re willing to work. It is about whether you’re willing to stay focused and be disciplined. And more importantly, it is about first believing in yourself every step of the way.
And if you do these things –- and anyone can –- then I know that every single one of you can be successful at a university like this or anywhere in the world.
I’ve seen it again and again, including in my own life. I grew up in a little bitty apartment on the second floor of a house in one of the biggest cities in my country.
And when I was about your age, I started applying to universities — I was a good student — at least I thought I was — my grades said I was — including — I applied to many of the elite schools in my country. And some folks didn’t think that someone with my background could succeed at schools like that. Right? I mean, these people meant well. They were rooting for me. But they weren’t really sure. And quite frankly I wasn’t sure, either.
But I ended up getting accepted to one of those top schools. But even then, I still had doubts. Entering that university, I wondered whether I could really keep up with the students whose parents had graduated from some of the finest universities, students who grew up with all kind of advantages that I never had.
But once I got into the school and started meeting people, and attending classes and opening my mouth and exercising my brain, I realized that I was doing just as well, and in many cases, even better than so many of my classmates.
And I realized then for the very first time in my life that success wasn’t about where you come from or how much money your family has. Success is about working hard and again believing that you can do it, and being able to envision that you can do it. You got to see yourselves here. And it’s not enough to just want it. You have to see it and you have to work for it.
And you can look at anyone who’s been successful –- and I’m sure there are successful people around you — your favorite teacher, your coach, whether it’s the top business leaders in your communities, your favorite artist or athlete, or even somebody like my husband. You know that guy. (Laughter.)
And you’ll see that in them, as well — that while they’ve taken different journeys — because not everybody has the same path — my husband’s was probably a little bumpier. He wasn’t a great student all the time. He goofed off a little bit. He didn’t get serious about school until he got to university, because he had a different journey, a different experience. But what all of these people share is the belief in their own potential — that’s really the very beginning — and having the determination to fulfill it.
And we can take the example of Mamphela, as well. She grew up in one of your country’s poorest provinces. And it was a different time then. Very different. She had to enter her own church through a separate entrance. She had to do chores for the staff at her school. And her teachers wouldn’t even shake her hand. All because of the color of her skin.
But that did not stop Mamphela. She went on to medical school, she became a doctor, she opened a community health center in an underserved area. And along the way, she stood up against apartheid, and because of that she went to jail. They banished her for years to a remote part of the country.
But they couldn’t banish her spirit. She went on to found another medical clinic, a literacy program, a daycare center. And more importantly, she never stopped learning. She never stopped earning degrees, collecting fellowships and awards from some of the most prestigious universities in the world. And when she became vice chancellor here at UCT, she was installed by President Nelson Mandela himself. How powerful is that, huh?