“Folks worked hard. They looked out for each other, and they always rallied around their kids,” she said, adding that her parents worked to give her and her brother everything they never had.
“It’s because they did what they did that we were the first in our immediate family to go to college,” she said. “And that made all the difference in the world.”
Obama encouraged the students to take responsibility for their education and their future. Few things worth achieving happen in an instant.
Detroit resident and Cranbrook Kingswood senior Cherry Tolbert introduced Obama. In her introduction, Tolbert, who attended Cranbrook Kingswood as a Skillman Foundation scholar and Horizons Upward Bound student and will attend the University of Michigan next year, related how she and her four sisters were raised in an education-driven household in Detroit.
Her mother requested she get a “Big Sister” from Big Brothers/Big Sisters when she was a shy 8-year-old.
Tolbert said her mentor exposed her to the business world that seemed so far from her own. Being part of this concerned woman’s world allowed her to see that a woman isn’t limited to staying at home or being dependent on someone else.
Tolbert said the First Lady’s life story is a testament to what hard work can achieve, even against the greatest odds. She also said both she and Michele Obama are examples of how mentoring does make a difference.
Before the First Lady took the stage, various figures from the fields of business, sports, entertainment and politics talked about their own inspirations and answered questions prepared in advance.
Basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson said there are no excuses for not achieving your goals and dreams.
“Every time you look at the person you admire, remember we all went through something in our lives,” he said. “We had to deal with some situation, but we overcame that situation.”
He said his situation was that in 8th grade he was only reading at a 6th grade level. But he went to summer school to correct that problem.
“Don’t let anybody stop your dreams,” he said.
Cathie Black, CEO of Hearst Magazines, said the best piece of advice she got came from Oprah Winfrey, whose message always is “Live your best life.”
“So find your passions. Follow your dreams and make them big,” Black said.
R&B singer and season two “American Idol” finalist Kimberly Locke added that her mother always told her she would get a lot more “noes” than “yeses” in life.
“‘You’ve got about 20 seconds to cry about it, then you pick yourself up and you keep going,’” she quoted. “I still use that to this day.”
Both Johnson and filmmaker Spike Lee discussed who they admired when they were growing up.
Johnson said he admired his father, who worked two jobs. Lee cited his grandmother, a teacher for 50 years, who saved her Social Security checks for her grandchildren’s education.
“My grandmother sent me to Morehouse College,” Lee said, adding that she also put him through New York University Film School and gave him the seed money to make his first film, “She’s Gotta Have It.”
Susan Taylor, former editor and chief of Essence magazine and founder of National CARES Mentoring Movement, was asked if she still had a mentor in her life, or someone from her youth, whom she still counts on.
She cited her late father, who opened a ladies’ boutique in 1936, and worked six days per week. From him she learned absolute discipline.
Denise Ilitch, president of Ilitch Enterprises, advised young women to have confidence in themselves.
“Confidence is key,” she said. “Don’t let anyone shut a door on you. If a door is shut, find another door.”
After the speech, the First Lady Michelle Obama and the mentors lunched with some 250 students at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
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