Michelle Obama’s arrival at a girls’ school in London on Tuesday morning was marked by screaming.
The First Lady visited the Mulberry School for Girls in the U.K. capital’s East End, as part of her “Let Girls Learn” initiative that aims to get girls around the world into education. Upon arrival at the school’s courtyard Obama was greeted by hundreds of students, aged 11 to 18, along with with ear-splitting cheers and screams and furious flag-waving. As Obama waved to the girls lining the packed balcony overlooking the courtyard, the school choir sang “Something Inside So Strong,” before a student recited the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou as another student danced. All of the performances were greeted with clapping and fist pumps from the First Lady.
Once the students had finished, Obama hugged the performers before heading inside the school for a roundtable discussion and a formal address. In her speech to the students, Obama spoke with emotion in her voice, telling them, “Girls like you inspire and impress me every single day.” She told the enthralled audience that she saw herself in them, recounting how she had grown up in a working class neighborhood in the south side of Chicago and had often struggled to balance family obligations and schoolwork, though she “worked hard” wanting to get into a top university. Mulberry School is rated “outstanding” by the U.K.’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills and though most of its students come from low-income households, 80% go on to university after graduating.
Obama also told the girls, the majority of whom are Muslim, that even though they might “hear what folks are saying about your religion and wonder if people will ever see past your headscarves,” they should not be dissuaded by the barriers they faced. “The world needs more girls like you,” she said, and “with an education from this amazing school you all have every chance you need to rise above the noise and fulfill every one of your dreams.”
The First Lady’s visit to the school coincided with the announcement that the U.S. and the U.K. were launching a new partnership that would see nearly $180 million being put towards girls’ education in the developing world, particularly those affected by conflict, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. As part of the new program, the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID) and USAID have pledged to help more girls in the Congo access education programs, with a particular focus on accelerated programs for adolescent girls who have missed out on school. The program will see some 755,000 girls benefit over the next five years, according to officials.
In addition to announcing the new partnership, Obama also stressed the importance of getting girls in the U.S. and U.K. involved in improving access to education for girls around the world. Speaking at a roundtable discussion with other officials, volunteers and academics in the library of Mulberry School — where biographies and memoirs of extraordinary women like Emily Bronte, Maya Angelou and Emmeline Pankhurst were on display — the First Lady said she tells her teenage daughters, Sasha and Malia, that “instead of tweeting what you had for lunch, why don’t you tweet what you learned at school and share it with girls around the world.”
This was a message she also emphasized to the Mulberry students. After praising the education the girls had received at the school, Obama told the students she wanted them to pay it forward. “Your job is to reach back and help someone up.”