Michelle Obama smells amazing. When she wrapped her arms around me for a hug after speaking on her Let Girls Learn initiative, the first thing I thought was holy shit Michelle Obama is giving me a hug, and secondly, wow she smells so good.
It was a sweltering Washington D.C. July afternoon but the First Lady seemed unbothered by the heat. Instead, she brought inspiration, poise, and grace with her: “You all are here today because someone believed in you, because someone gave you the chance to be everything you would want to be.” That line stuck with me then and continues to remind me both that I am worthy of my opportunities, and so are the amazing people around me. But on that July afternoon, I was thinking, what did I want to be? Who believes in me? And what sort of girl do I have the potential to be?
It was a question I asked myself a lot that summer. I was a Teen Advisor for the UN Foundation’s Girl Up campaign and had spent a couple days in DC working with other Teen Advisors for the 2015 Girl Up Summit. I was overwhelmed by the other girls I served with, and couldn’t help thinking that I wasn’t meant to be there. My sixteen-year-old self was not important enough to interact one of the nation’s most inspiring women, and here she was wrapping her arms around me. It was a summer of is this really happening right now? And, why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve to be here. I thought that all summer: in DC at the Girl Up summit, at home as I was packing for a 3 week trip to Rwanda for a global “women in STEM” program, on the plane-ride, and on the bus from Kigali International to our compound at Gashora Girls Academy in Eastern Province, Rwanda.
But once I got to Rwanda, after meeting girls from eight African countries and from around the U.S. and sharing a meal together, I thought – we’re all in this together. The three weeks in Rwanda flew by, and I made lifelong friends. My final project was a prototype of a solar powered Wi-Fi hotspot that was created with love, hard-work and long-nights. Working alongside three other girls from Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana, we had moments of cultural difference, misunderstanding, and frustration, but all of that was accompanied by moments of brilliance, joy, and success.
Throughout my time in Rwanda I was in constant reflection – I was journaling, talking with friends, writing a personal blog, and a more public blog for the Huffington Post. I was constantly progress checking: Do I know the type of woman I will be? Who believes in me? Who inspires me? Have I grown? And the answers became ever clearer: maybe, apparently a lot of people, WOMEN, and YES!!
At the very end of my trip, I was able to present my tech-prototype with another First Lady, The First Lady of Rwanda Jeanette Kagame. I held my head high as I presented on the lack of Internet access afforded to a majority of the world (4 billion people do not have access to Wi-Fi), and the emerging technologies that can better connect people globally. As I sat on the plane on my way home, I knew not only that other people believed in me, but that I believed in myself.
Let Girls Learn taught me about global citizenship, teamwork, female empowerment and most importantly, self-belief. Last week, when an internal memo from the White House was released on the termination of Let Girls Learn, I was devastated. Immediately my phone blew up with Facebook messages from young, empowered women and girls who had, like me, directly benefited from Michelle Obama and the PeaceCorp’s program.
While there have been retracted statements from The White House as to their continued support of women’s empowerment, it is uncertain what the future of Let Girls Learn looks like. Let Girls Learn has been pivotal to me becoming who I am today. I am saddened to think that girls after me won’t have the opportunity to ask themselves the hard questions that I did over the summer of 2015. And even more devastatingly, many won’t have the opportunity to recognize their immense potential. Michelle Obama, in her big way, believed in me, and it taught me to believe in myself.
Cover photo credit: Tom Jasovsky