Gary Comer Youth Center
12:56 P.M. CDT
MRS. OBAMA: Wow. Well, hello. (Laughter.) And thank you all so much. Let me tell you, it is more than a pleasure for me to be here with all of you today at the Gary Comer Youth Center. As Greg mentioned, as you know, I was born and raised right here on the South Side. And I have to tell you, it really feels good to be home.
And I want to start by thanking Greg for that very kind introduction and for his outstanding work as executive director for the center. I remember when we first met, and he has been just rock solid from the very beginning, and you all are lucky to have him.
I also want to give a special thank you to Mrs. Francie Comer, and to Guy Comer, for being with us today and for carrying on Gary Comer's extraordinary legacy of service to this community. (Applause.) Thank you all so much.
And I also want to give a special hello, recognize 6 very special guests whom I've brought with me here today, my counterparts and distinguished women in their own right from Albania, Croatia, France, Norway, Turkey and the NATO headquarters. They are visiting Chicago this weekend, as you know, for this year's NATO summit. And I am obviously thrilled and proud to host them here in my hometown and in my backyard. So let's give them a round of applause and a warm welcome. (Applause.)
And most of all, I want to recognize all of the extraordinary young people joining us today. You all are amazingly impressive. But we will also hear from the Soul Children of Chicago, who are here today. We've got the South Shore Drill Team who's going to perform, as well as Mantu Dance Company in the house -- and I used to be on the board of Mantu, so I've got a little connection to some of everybody here today.
And of course, we've got to thank the wonderful men and -- young men and women of the Gary Comer Youth Center. You guys were so impressive today. In every single aspect of this day, you represented yourselves, your school, your community, and your country in an outstanding way. And you really have to know that you all are the reason why I'm here today, and you're the reason why I brought these very important ladies from around the world here to this center.
I brought them here because I wanted them to see just how amazing you all are. That’s really it. I want them to see you all. I want those cameras to see you all. I brought them here because I am so proud of where I grew up, and I wanted to show everyone some of the wonderful things that are happening here on the South Side.
Way back when I was just starting out in my career in Chicago, I ran a little organization called Public Allies, where we worked to train 30 young people each year -- many of them like you -- for careers in public service. And since we started that program many years ago, leaders from that program have gone on to transform lives throughout this community and so many others not just here in Chicago, but around the country. But there are some very special ones who are here today, and I got to meet three public allies who are working here right now -- Miguel Rodriguez, Maurice Wilson, and Sinya Hayes, who are here. You guys -- are you here? (Applause.) Where are you? That’s my public allies. That’s like home.
This program was the reason -- one of the reasons why I left practicing law -- so you know I walked away from some money to do this work. But Public Allies will always have a special place in my heart.
I also remember back when this center was just an idea. And it is really amazing to see this phenomenal facility. I remember when it was just being built, and I can't begin to tell you how much it means to be here, seeing this thriving, inspiring, beautiful place just minutes from where I grew up -- a place where you all can come and learn and grow and pursue your dreams. I hope you know how blessed you are. And being here today, I see so much of myself in all of you young people. I really do.
I grew up just like you. Same background. My family didn’t have a lot of money growing up. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college, and most of the folks in my neighborhood didn’t get a chance to go, either. And there were also well-meaning but sometimes misguided folks who questioned whether someone with my background could get into the kind of colleges that I dreams of attending. And sometimes I'd save those folks the trouble and raise those questions of doubt in my own head; lying awake at night worrying about whether I had what it took to succeed.
But I decided to just focus, to push the haters out, to kick the doubters out of my head. And instead, what I did was I worked really hard. I focused all my energy on working hard. I spent hours every day trying to get my homework done, wrestling with those math problems, writing and rewriting those papers over and over again. We don’t like it, but that’s part of the process. Studying, getting up early in the morning to study, because we lived in such a little-bitty apartment that it was hard to concentrate at night when everybody was awake, so often I woke up at 4:30, 5:00 in the morning just to study in quiet. And eventually, I was accepted to Princeton University, and I went onto Harvard Law School. (Applause.)
And what I want you all to know is that with every acceptance letter I received, I realized that it didn’t matter where I was from, didn’t matter how much money my family had. What mattered was how deeply I was willing to believe in myself. Do you realize that? It was all here. What mattered was how hard I was willing to work. And that’s something that I really want to emphasize with you all today.
You see, no one -- or maybe very few people are born smart. You become smart through hard work. No one is born a student or a doctor or a teacher or an astronaut. You become those things by studying and practicing and putting in those long hours in the classroom and the lab, wherever it is.
So today, you all, no matter what you have going on at home or in your life, no matter what challenges you all are facing, I just want to urge you all to invest yourself 100 percent in everything you do. Invest yourself 100 percent in school, in classes. Invest yourself 100 percent in these wonderful activities that you have here at the Comer Center.
If you dream of being a reporter on the evening news, then get involved with the Free Spirit Media -- take advantage of that. If you want to be a scientist, then get up on top of that roof and start studying those plants and working in that garden. If you want to be a mayor, if you want to be senator, maybe -- if you want to be President of the United States, then get involved in these wonderful leadership programs that are here. Embrace them. Take advantage of them.
And no matter what you want to be, just know this: You will always need a good education. You will always need a good education. There is no shortcut to that. So work hard in school, you all, please. Take this seriously. Do your homework every night. Don’t be "that kid," right? Be the one that’s always prepared.
And remember this: when you make a mistake, or fail a test, or struggle to understand something -- and you will -- that doesn’t mean that you're not smart. It just means that maybe you need to work a little harder. That is not a statement of who you are. You have to remember, succeeding is not about being perfect. All of us have failed -- and we have failed big. It is about trying your hardest at every single thing that you do. It's about using your mistakes as opportunities to learn.
So when you're struggling, talk to someone. Make sure your teachers -- this is the same thing I tell my girls -- talk to your teacher. Get some tutoring here at the Comer Center. Never be afraid to ask for help -- never. Because the truth is that no one succeeds all by themselves -- no one. We succeed in part because of all those people who help us and believe in us along the way -- our families, our teachers, coaches. All those folks who tell us that we're special, and that we're talented, and that we have a place in this world and we have so much to offer. Take those voices in.
So none of you should ever have to go this alone. And that is why it is so important for all of us in this country, in this world to support young people like you, like these young people, with centers like this. This should be the standard for communities all around the world. It is so important for us to come together as a country, as nations and help all of our young people fulfill every last bit of their potential.
And more than anything else, that is why Mr. Comer built this center. He built it because he believed in all of you, just like I believe in you, just like my husband, the President of the United States, believes in you all. And everyone at this center believes in you. Take that in.
And all of us see how talented you are -- we could see that just today, just in the few moments that we had to be with you all, to hear your confidence. We see you succeeding in school, we see you producing your own albums and choreographing your own dances. We see you challenging yourselves to stay fit with sports and classes at the center; stay healthy. You've even been growing your own garden -- which, by the way, is more than 5 times bigger than the garden at the White House. I'm not hating on you -- (laughter) -- but you got us far outmatched. Some of you even worked with a professional chef, Chef Paul Kahan, to cook a three course lunch for me and our special guests today. How many young people can say that? That you cooked for NATO spouses? My goodness. What a résumé.
And if you all are this good now, just imagine how good you'll be if you keep on working and learning and studying. Imagine everything that you'll be able to accomplish. And when you make it -- because you will, and say that in your minds -- when you make it, when you get your diplomas and you're working in those good jobs, and you're starting your own businesses, raising your families, what I want you to do is reach back and help other kids do the same thing. That’s your responsibility. That’s what you give back.
I want you to build youth centers like this one. Take your money and do this. I want you to go into schools and share your stories, and inspire other kids to work as hard as you did. And you don’t have to wait until you're an adult to start reaching back. You can start mentoring and tutoring right now -- your siblings, your classmates, younger kids in the center. Reach back now. You don’t have to wait. You can start doing for them what Mr. Comer has done for you.
And I want you to remember something that Mr. Comer once said about giving back to the South Side, where he grew up. He said that he decided to focus on helping kids like you because, he said, "what could be more important than that?" What could be more important than that?
Nothing is more important than insuring that all of you have opportunities worthy of your promise. That I agree with. Nothing is more important than helping all of you pursue your dreams. We know how much you all have to offer, and today, I want you to know that my husband and I, we are inspired by you. We are inspired by you. We are so proud of you all, and we just can't wait to see what amazing things you all do with your lives in the years ahead.
So you've got to work hard. The bar is high, right? All right.
Thank you all. God bless.
1:09 P.M. CDT