Michelle Obama is Spreading Ripples of Hope

Perhaps some of you remember that on Michelle Obama’s first trip abroad in 2009 she visited the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in England. It produced a pretty emotional moment that is partially captured in this video.

That interchange formed a bond between these girls and the First Lady. Two years later, she returned to the school. This time, it was to take a group of them to visit Oxford University. In a move that warmed the heart of this former youth worker, Mrs. Obama specifically targeted girls who were “interested in science but not reaching their full potential” for this outing. That took some planning and forethought as these kinds of experiences are usually limited to the high achievers. So I love her for that.

As part of the tour of Oxford, the First Lady sat down with these students for a chat. Here’s part of what she told them:

Look around. I mean, just look at this, a renowned university that has trained so many of the world’s brightest minds and greatest leaders.

And I’m not the only one who’s excited to see you all here today. Students and faculty at this university were eager to visit with you all, as well.

And there’s a reason for that. It’s because all of us – and it’s important for you to know that – all of us believe that you belong here; that this is a place for you, as well. We passionately believe that you have the talent within you, you have the drive, you have the experience to succeed here at Oxford and at universities just like it across the country and across the world…

…all of us who brought you here today don’t just think that universities have a lot to offer you. We believe that you all have a lot to offer these universities – your talent, your passion, your unique life experiences. And we very much want you to believe that’s true, as well.

I say all of that because today there is some interesting news that surfaced about the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school.

Professor Simon Burgess, from Bristol University, has now studied the impact of her association with the schools on the girls’ exam results.

He analyzed the GCSE scores – taken when students are 16 years-old – from over the past decade, compared to London state secondary schools. He found a slight rise in scores from 2009 to 2010, while the 2012 score was substantially above 2011.

Professor Burgess said: “Those results focus on the overall effect, but since Michelle Obama was encouraging very high performance and aspirations it is important to look specifically at high performance too.”

He found a “very striking” rise in the number of top grades relative to the rest of London in 2012. “If this is really a result of Michelle Obama’s interventions, then it is a big effect,” he said.

“In general terms: ‘I did this; you could too’, can be a very powerful message if delivered by the ‘right’ person. Michelle Obama was that person, and her words had an effect – you only need to watch the news videos to see that the pupils were genuinely inspired.”

I believe that it was Michelle Obama’s experience with the students at this school that led her to initiate the Let Girls Learn project. Her work on this will continue long after her husband’s term as president is over, so we can expect these kinds of results to multiply.

That might seem like a small item in the scheme of things. But I disagree, because I remember something Robert Kennedy said 50 years ago:

Each time a (wo)man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, s/he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .