Peer Leaders are “Beating the Odds” with Michelle Obama and Reach Higher

Peer Leaders Zipporah Sewell (left) and Nadiyah Williams (right).  

When Peer Leaders Zipporah Sewell and Nadiyah Williams graduated from Charles H. Flowers High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland this summer, they never imagined Michelle Obama would be giving them personal advice and encouragement as they prepared to start their college journeys in the fall. But on July 23rd, 2019, Zipporah and Nadiyah experienced just that as part of approximately 90 rising college freshmen invited to Michelle Obama and Reach Higher’s 5th Anniversary “Beating the Odds summit, a day centered on uplifting and empowering first-generation college students on their path to higher education.  

Hosted at Howard University in Washington, D.C, the day started with a panel of three current or recently graduated college students who attended the first Beating the Odds event with Michelle Obama in 2014. They offered candid advice on the first-gen college student experience and encouraged students to take care of their mental health, seek community, and not shy away from asking for help throughout the process.  

 Panelists from left to right: Rachel McKenzie Scott, Michelle Obama, Ariel Ventura, and Malcolm Jenkins 

Students then had the opportunity to hear directly from former First Lady Michelle Obama, NFL player Malcolm Jenkins, Ariel Ventura, and Rachel McKenzie Scott, all first-generation college graduates. The panel was moderated by Wes Moore, CEO of Robin Hood, who drove home his message that people are not products of their circumstance; they are products of their expectations,” and told students to see the challenges they’ve overcome not as setbacks, but as preparing them to achieve great things in life. 

There was no shortage of powerful words shared that day, like the following words imparted by Obama: There’s a part of you that’s wondering whether this was a mistake, whether I belong, whether I can do this when I go on this campus or start this program, am I really worthy of it? Because those were the messages I had going on in my head and they still come up through life…But here’s my one big message: This is not a mistake. You are here because you are more than capable of doing it. 

Peer Leader Zipporah Sewell asking a question during the panel discussion’s Q&A. 

As students shared their honest questions, fears, and uncertainties with the room during the Q&A discussion, Peer Leaders Zipporah Sewell was chosen to ask the panel her question on how each individual navigated the uncertain path looming ahead after graduating college. 

“Look at it as just another transition,” Obama responded. “Life is a series of transitions. All through college you’ll be learning how to pivot and work through transitions. That will prepare you for what’s next. It may be hard, but you can’t go through life avoiding the hard things forever. You have to practice the hard.”  

In a powerful call to action that amplified a message at the core of PeerForward’s mission, Michelle Obama closed the day’s discussion saying, “Part of what I ask of you is that you become a mentor. Start thinking about yourselves as mentors now. That’s how we keep multiplying. Now you have a little info you can pass on, so pass it on.” 

Outwo Peer Leader attendees left the event inspired and uplifted, sharing the following about the day: 

“Hearing people like Michelle Obama say they’d gone through some of the same struggles and fears as us, I just thought, ‘wow,’ it’s not so different from us. Getting to ask her a question and hear her speak was just unforgettable,” Zipporah said. “I’ve overcome a lot in my life, homelessness, financial struggles, but I want more for my future. I want to work hard to do well and graduate college.” 

“I learned a lot here,” Nadiyah added. “They shared a lot of advice for what to expect when we get to college that I feel will really help us when we’re there.” 

Soon, you can find Nadiyah at Spelman College and Zipporah at Robert Morris University for their first semester of college this fall. Each with dreams of graduating and pursuing politics, activism, and public health in the future, there’s no telling how these two natural-born leaders will change the world in days to come! 

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