UPDATE: Mrs. Obama’s Mentees Visit Martha’s Table
The Telegraph in the UK reported on the Elizabeth Garret Anderson School for Girls trip to DC to visit Michelle Obama. Here is the article with mention of the impact Martha’s Table had on them during their visit.
The ultimate school trip: visiting the Obamas at the White House
Michelle Obama’s interest in a London school prompted her to invite a dozen of its pupils to the White House. The pupils tell of their experience.
By Peter Stanford
6:55AM BST 27 Mar 2012
‘She just walked into the room, talked to us like we were her friends, told us stories about herself and then gave us all a hug. It was amazing,” says 14-year-old Nishat Tasnim, who still hasn’t quite come down from the high of meeting Michelle Obama at the White House. “She was like an auntie,” enthuses Gamze Kaplan. “She told us she could relate to us because she’d had a childhood similar to ours.”
We’re sitting in the library of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School (EGA) in Islington, north London. Around a table littered with mementos of their visit to Washington, 11 of the dozen 13-to-15 year-old pupils, who earlier this month went on the school trip to end all school trips, are swapping details of what they did in the East Wing and what they heard there.
“Mrs Obama told us that failing was all right,” remembers Hameedat Abedapo, “that you have to get back up and carry on, that we mustn’t be afraid to fail.” “And,” adds 13-year-old Shoobta Abanur, the youngest to go on the trip, “that you don’t have to be wealthy to succeed in life.”
“I asked her what had been her hardest experience,” saysNishat, “and she said it was working at a bookbinders, putting in screws to make a notebook, and realising that some people do that for their whole lives.”
All are jostling good-humouredly to share their memories. There is a real buzz in the air. “You should have seen them before we went,” says Jo Dibb, the head teacher at EGA. “None of our girls is ever frightened to speak up and express their opinions, but they’ve come back different people in terms of confidence, self-esteem and their belief that they can go on to great things.”
The special relationship between the President’s wife, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, and this 900-strong comprehensive in north London began in 2009 when the Obamas were on an official visit to Britain. The First Lady has a particular interest in girls’ education and runs a mentoring programme to encourage those from less privileged backgrounds, such as her own on Chicago’s South Side, to set their sights high. The achievements at EGA – which caters for a diverse inner-city community, is in the top two per cent of schools in the country for pupils receiving free school meals, and is consistently judged Outstanding by schools’ inspectors – had caught her attention.So she came to see for herself. On that visit, she was visibly touched by the reception she received and was tearful when she spoke to the pupils.
“I want you to know,” she told them, “that we have very much in common. There was nothing in my story that would land me here. I wasn’t raised with wealth or resources or any social standing to speak of.”“She said that she saw herself in the girls,” recalls Jo Dibb. “And it wasn’t just words. Despite all her commitments as First Lady, she has kept in regular contact with us since, and has shown the girls that she really does believe in them. That is a huge compliment and a massive encouragement for them. Our girls come from a variety of backgrounds – Bangladeshi, Somali, Turkish, Vietnamese, Croatian – and they often have plenty of challenges to cope with. Sometimes it can feel like they are running to catch up.”In 2011, when in Oxford, Michelle Obama met a group of pupils from EGA and showed them round in an effort to encourage them to aim for places at the university. And then, to coincide with David Cameron’s state visit to Washington, she invited a dozen girls from the school to join her at the White House on the trip of a lifetime.Two hundred pupils applied and 12 were selected by the head on the basis of written submissions to questions about leadership, their attendance record, and the effort their teachers said they were putting in to their studies. “I just screamed when Miss Dibb told me I had been chosen,” remembers 15-year-old Khadija Serwaah. “I couldn’t believe it.”None had been to the United States before. The costs for their trip – including hotel accommodation in Washington and scheduled flights – were sponsored by international law firm Hogan Lovells. The girls, and the teachers who accompanied them, had three sessions with Mrs Obama, and one with her husband as he welcomed the Camerons to the White House. “He had really soft hands when we were shaking hands,” recalls Misha Daway, “and he knew all about our school”.There were meetings with senior female members of staff at the White House, including its first female head chef busy preparing a banquet, and then with female diplomats at the State Department. “That was one of the highlights for me,” says Tina Delic, “and listening to them talking about the common relationship that we all share around the globe, wherever we come from.
”The girls also visited various charity projects connected with the First Lady, including Martha’s Table, a centre in Washington that works with at-risk children and families. And despite the obvious thrill of their red carpet treatment at the most famous address on earth – they debate briefly whether the White House has 38 or 39 bathrooms – it is what they saw at those projects that is proving an enduring inspiration for the girls.“I learnt at Martha’s Table that there are always things we can do to pull up those who are less fortunate than us,” says Shoopta. Several have already volunteered for community organisations since getting back. Khadija Bilgis, for example, has started reading to local people who need to brush up their literacy.But the pupils keep coming back to the impact that being singled out by Michelle Obama had on them.
If they had to sum it up in one word, I ask, what would it be. Their answers range from “Inspirational” to “Indescribable”, from “Awesome” to a simple but exuberant “Wow!”“I can still hear her saying to us: ‘You have to push yourself hard, because if it feels easy, you’re not trying hard enough’,” remembers Jennifer Duong. “I won’t forget that.” “And she had so much belief in us,” says Gamze Kaplan. “If she has that amount of belief in us, then…,” she searches for the right words. “Then we really could do whatever we want.”“Before going to the White House,” reflects Ece Emin, “I used to think I wanted to be a surgeon. After listening to Mrs Obama, I know that I want to be a woman prime minister.”