Face to face with a giant, meeting Michelle Obama


Photo credit, Penguin Random House LLC

Michelle Obama, with activist, actress, and hostess Yara Shahidi, meets students from colleges from around the country.

Meeting Michelle Obama was, and is still one of the best opportunities a young person could have. I mean, we’re talking about a tall African- American woman who knows she has so much influence and clout, and starts the conversation asking “What’s going on in your world?” Simply amazing.

Not only did I get to see our first Black First Lady, but I also got to see  Yara Shahidi, an activist and actress from the popular show “Blackish.” She moderated the conversation with such a graceful focus, making sure every voice was heard. Even after the livestream ended, Shahidi left the space open for last minute thoughts and questions. This meant we were able to have another 5  minutes of talking with Obama before she would take pictures with us and say goodbye. She left us as we smiled in awe, still shocked from having shared such an exclusive moment together with Obama and Shahidi. I was truly fortunate to be in the right place, at the right time, to be given the chance to meet them.

As a student leader at Montgomery College, I was keen to apply for the opportunity to meet with Obama when the Student Life Director sent out the invitation. I reaped the reward of that application on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 1pm at Prince George’s Community College (PGCC). The event had originally been scheduled to take place at Howard University. However, with the month long protests at Howard, the PGCC Center for Performing Arts became the scene of choice.

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There was no way I would refuse this once in a lifetime opportunity. I had worked the 12-hour 7pm – 7am night shift and hoped not to appear too dazed for the former First Lady, Shahidi, and my fellow students. We had been told that Black Entertainment Television, BET, would be airing the show as a special after live-streaming the production. I’m sure I at least dressed the part.

I was one of about dozen students selected from schools around the country.  As chosen students representing colleges around the country, we came together to ask Obama thoughtful questions on a wide range of topics including the former First Lady’s book, imposter syndrome, and the importance of being aware of who is at what she referred to as our “kitchen table,” our personal space and system of support and influence.

Obama encouraged us to focus on learning and embracing our own identities, saying, “come as you are with your hijab, and your afro.” She also mentioned how many of the social changes we seek are upon us now.  Her wise words reminded us how the social activists in the generations before us paved the way for today’s nation. She put the ball in our court, insisting that the time has come for each of us to “put your markers in the sand.” As was her experience, Obama suggested we focus more on letting our hard work get us into those elevated and influential positions to show us that we belong.

I asked Obama whether there were certain roles or jobs we should pursue in order to improve the socioeconomic status of our communities. In her book, Obama describes her success checking off all of her boxes all the way through to becoming a high paid lawyer. She explains how her desire to help her community took her away from her high paying job and closer to the community.

I wanted to know if there was any merit to the long held belief that some of the more beneficial careers to pursue are those of lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Obama did not endorse this belief, but she also didn’t completely denounce the idea of pursuing any of the lucrative occupations. Instead, she encouraged us to perform all jobs with excellence, and to be  focused on maintaining and improving each of our individual “kitchen tables.”

Building support systems, educating and taking care of family and friends, and maintaining a commitment to vote, Obama explained, were all key to generating tons of “small changes” that could bring about the big changes we hope and protest for when we hear of cases like George Floyd or Trayvon Martin.

Visibly shocked and stunned by the atmosphere, I totally forgot to take any notes! We had more to do after the conversation:  re-filming walk throughs, recording introductions, and taking pictures. By the time we returned to the staging room, it was almost 4pm when I realized two things. One, that the day was almost over, and two, that I needed to get to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda to get ready for my next 7pm – 7am shift. The night was about to begin.

I will never forget that day. As much as I try to stay in the know, I couldn’t have known Obama had plans to come to the DMV, and that I’d be lucky enough to meet her in person! I made a last minute request to Obama to come to Montgomery College. I’m sure that if it’s possible it will happen. Otherwise, I’ll have to think of another way to escape my nerves and forgetfulness and actually take notes at our next meeting.

-Jonathan Spires is Editor-in-chief of The Excalibur Newspaper at Montgomery College and works as a clinical technician at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.

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