For International Women's Day, Michelle Obama and the Obama Foundation teamed up with Refinery29 to shine a light on the importance and urgency of empowering girls around the world — to ensure they can reach their full potential through education and, in turn, support their families, communities, and countries. The result is a Q&A between Mrs. Obama and four young women from Nepal, Ghana, Guatemala, and Chicago, a critical dialogue she hopes will remind us that this is our issue to face, as much as anyone else’s.
Meet 20-year-old Pearl Quarmyne. Pearl was raised in a small village by her grandmother and grew up selling pastries and toffee to provide for herself and her two brothers. She was able to attend high school with the help of Camfed, a nonprofit that helps girls go to school in sub-Saharan Africa. Now a college student, she works with girls in her community, funding their needs with the proceeds from her business selling ice blocks to local fishermen.
MICHELLE OBAMA: Pearl, what barriers did you have to overcome in order to achieve an education? What made you decide you would do whatever it took to overcome those obstacles?
PQ: “My barrier was financial. I’m the only girl in my family and was raised by my grandmother, who never went to school, and aunties, who were never able to finish school. I helped make ends meet by fetching and selling water; washing clothes for other families; and selling sugarcane, pastries, and toffee. Many girls I knew dropped out due to pregnancy or because they couldn’t afford the materials. I couldn’t afford books myself, so I would ask teachers and friends to borrow them. I was determined, because I loved school and wanted to be a teacher; I would often read ahead and help teachers with their lesson plans.”
MO: What do you plan to do — or have you done — with your education? How will you champion and support others who are working to achieve an education?
PQ: “Girls' education is not just about getting girls enrolled in school — it’s about ensuring that they stay there and are safe. I’m a member of the CAMA (Camfed alumnae) network, and my CAMA sisters and I re-enroll children who have dropped out of school by utilizing Camfed’s resources to buy materials. We bought one girl a new uniform so she didn’t feel ashamed of her old one, and her teacher says that she’s since become more confident and speaks up in class. And guess what? I’m now working toward my dream of becoming a teacher by studying at university so that one day I can influence more students.”
MO: What advice do you have for girls who face challenges similar to you in reaching their full potential through an education?
PQ: “Whether it’s about boys, health, or just everyday worries, girls need someone to talk to who is not a teacher — someone they see as a senior sister to support their journey. So I would encourage girls to open up and share with someone who may have a similar background and understand their challenges.”
PEARL: Mrs. Obama, I’m 20 years old. If you had the opportunity to be my age again, what would you do?
MO: “I would do exactly what I did back then, which is focus on getting my education. Education was truly everything for me. Neither of my parents had a chance to attend college, but they were so determined to give me that chance, and getting my degree changed the course of my life. It opened doors I never could have imagined and let me pursue the career of my dreams in law, public service, and nonprofit work.”
PQ: How do you define success?
MO: “On your own terms! Success isn’t about how your life looks to others — it’s about how it feels to you. I also think a key measure of success is how you handle adversity. It’s not just about how you act when you’re healthy and happy and everything is going according to plan, but also what you do when life knocks you to the ground and all your plans go right out the window. In those darkest moments, you have a choice: Do you dwell on everything you’ve lost, or do you focus on what you still have and find a way to move forward with passion, determination, and joy?”
PQ: Are there any lessons you learned the hard way?
MO: “Absolutely. One in particular stands out. When I was writing my senior thesis in college, I had a great topic, and I was working pretty hard, but not as hard as I could have been. And when I went to my thesis advisor for a letter of recommendation for law school, he did the best thing he possibly could have done: He gave a brutally honest response. He said, ‘You know, you're a good student, but are you the best I've seen? I'm not sure.’ But he agreed to write the letter.
“I didn't say a word. But I made a decision to prove him wrong. For the next three months, I worked like you wouldn’t believe on that thesis. I was in his office every day. Instead of letting his response deter me, I used it to motivate me. And then one day he looked up and said, ‘What are you doing after college?’ And I said, ‘Well, I'm applying to law school...you wrote me a letter of recommendation.’ And he said, ‘I did?’ He got really quiet, and then he said, 'I think I'm going to write you another letter.' Later, I was accepted to Harvard Law School.
“The lesson I learned from that is that as women and girls, we have to confront those negative voices — the ones in our head and the ones from people in our lives — telling us what we can’t do. It’s not easy, and it’s something you have to work on every single day. I feel like every woman I know is working on this. I’m still working on it!”
PQ: What is the most effective daily habit you possess?
MO: “My number one daily habit is to give myself permission to be happy. It's physical and mental; it's my diet, physical activity, and emotional state. That’s all tied together. And as women, this can be challenging because we’re not always taught to do it — we feel like it’s somehow selfish. But I’ve learned that when I actually put myself on the priority list along with everyone else in my life, it actually benefits them, too. When I’m happier and healthier, my family is happier and healthier, and it affects how I interact with my friends and the people I work with. So I’ve freed myself to say, yes, I can make choices that make me happy, and that will ripple out and be good for the people I love as well.”
Want to learn more about how you can help educate girls around the world? Visit go.obama.org/iwd and follow @obamafoundation on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get updates on the work the Foundation will be doing in the weeks and months to come.