March 21, 2015
Well, hello. It is truly a pleasure and an honor to be here in Siem Reap with all of you. I’m grateful for the hospitality and the warmth of the Cambodian people who have made me feel welcome and at home in such a short period of time. And I’m thrilled to join all of you today as we embark on one of the very first trainings for Let Girls Learn.
I want to start by thanking Carrie for that very kind introduction, but, more importantly, for her extraordinary leadership at the Peace Corps. Let’s give Carrie a round of applause. (Applause.)
I also want to join Carrie in recognizing our terrific Ambassador to Cambodia, Ambassador Todd. We are thrilled that you’re here. Thank you so much for your work, and thank you for supporting us here during this visit. And I also want to thank Danielle, as well — who I hear is a super star — for her wonderful remarks and her service in the Peace Corps.
But most of all, I want to thank all of you for the outstanding work that you all are doing to educate and empower girls here in Cambodia. You all are living, breathing proof — you’re the embodiment of what Let Girls Learn is all about. It’s really about Peace Corps volunteers, community leaders, parents and girls themselves working side-by-side to help girls go to school, and, more importantly, stay in school.
And that’s exactly what you all are doing. You’re doing it every day. You’re running girls’ leadership camps. You’re running discussion groups and sports teams. And you’re growing gardens, and you’re teaching girls about nutrition, and you’re helping them plan for their futures.
And most of all, you all are serving as role models for these girls. You’re showing them what it means to be a powerful, passionate, educated woman. And for the few brave men here — (laughter) — you guys are also showing girls what they should expect from the men in their lives: They should be treated equally, with dignity and respect.
And I know from my own experience the impact you all can have with the work that you do, because while I come here today as First Lady of the United States, it wasn’t all that long ago that I was doing the same kind of work that you all are doing –- although I took a winding path to get there.
Growing up, my family certainly wasn’t wealthy, and neither of my parents went to college. So when I graduated from law school, I had a lot of student debt — I know some of the Peace Corps volunteers can probably relate to that. (Laughter.) So when I landed a job at a prestigious law firm with a nice office, big paycheck, my family was thrilled, and so was I.
Now, I had to work hard at the job. I was grateful for the salary that they paid me, but the truth is, I always felt like something was missing. I realized that I didn’t want to be way up in some tall building representing corporate clients. I wanted to be down on the ground, in the neighborhood where I had grown up, working with families like mine.
So I quit that job, and eventually, I wound up running a program called Public Allies that trained young people to work in non-profit organizations and serve their communities. This was actually an AmeriCorps national service program, and there may be some of you who knows that when AmeriCorps was first created, it was described as the “domestic Peace Corps” — a way to empower communities at home like the Peace Corps is empowering communities abroad.
So when I started there, I took a big salary cut. And my mother thought I was crazy for leaving that good job at the firm. But I was happier than I had been in years — really. I got up every day ready to go to work, excited because I knew I was making a difference. I could feel it. I could see it in the faces of the young people I worked with every day. I saw their pride as they learned new skills and gained new confidence. I saw the impact they had on the people they served –- the students they taught, the workers they trained, the communities they organized.
And I learned from that experience that real, meaningful change in communities doesn’t happen from the top down, it happens from the ground up. It happens when you build on the strengths that already exist in those communities. It happens when you empower the leaders that are already there, and then they go on to empower others.
I saw these principles in action earlier today, just a short while ago, when Mrs. Bun Rany and I visited a local school where a program called Room to Read is helping girls get their education. And let me tell you, we met with a group of young girls, mostly 12th grade — they were teenagers — and these girls were amazing. They were amazing. They had big dreams, big, huge dreams. And they had plans for how they’re going to use their education to serve their community and to build their country.
So what you all should understand is that the spirit of service that you all share, it’s contagious. It truly is. When you inspire the people you serve, they go on to inspire other people. And when that happens. There is absolutely no limit to the impact that you can have and we can have together.
The story of one Peace Corps volunteer today is a perfect example. So, Alexa Ofori, I’m going to embarrass you. Where are you? (Laughter.) Oh, there you are. (Laughter.) Well, for those of you who don’t know, she’s a health volunteer who helped run a girls’ leadership camp and teaches health education at a local school — got it right so far?
Alexa was born in America, but her father grew up in Ghana, and her mother grew up in Grenada. And when her parents were kids, both of them had Peace Corps volunteers teaching in their schools. So just think about that –- two children inspired by Peace Corps volunteers grow up, get married, have this beautiful daughter — I bet you’re smart, too — (laughter) — who decides to become a volunteer herself, and to inspire a new generation of young people.
And Alexa did an interview with the Peace Corps before she arrived here in Cambodia, and she talked about how excited she was to meet her host family and make new friends. And she said — this is her quote — she said, “I’m really excited to share a little bit of my life with them, and to have them share a lot of their life with me.”
And ultimately, that’s really what you all are doing here with the work that you’re doing. You’re sharing in each other’s lives. You’re learning from each other, you’re opening each other’s minds and hearts to your hopes, dreams and values. And that’s something we often say about the Peace Corps –- Peace Corps volunteers help share American values with the world –- values like equality, inclusiveness, fairness, openness.
But the truth is, those aren’t just American values. We know this. They are universal human values. And the foundation for those values is actually the focus of all of your work here in Cambodia, and that’s education.
When girls get educated –- when they learn to read and write and think –- that gives them the tools to speak up and to talk about injustice, and to demand equal treatment. It helps them participate in the political life of their country and hold their leaders accountable, call for change when their needs and aspirations aren’t being met.
I’ve seen this process firsthand back home in America. You probably watched what we go through, right? It’s not always easy for a government to meet the needs of all of its people, and my husband certainly gets his share of criticism and disagreement. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. Not in America. Because the voices and opinions of our people and our country — both men and women from every background, from every walk of life — that’s what makes America strong and vibrant.
And that’s really my message to all the young women here today — that Let Girls Learn is about giving girls like you here, all the girls who are here, giving you a voice in your communities and in your country. That’s why we are all here. It’s why we’re all here — we’ve got a lot of us here — because we know that you all have so much to say and so much to contribute. And when you have the chance to fulfill your potential, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.
So I’m here today to urge you to keep working as hard as you can. And I know it’s not easy. I can’t guarantee you that it will ever be easy. But the work is worth it. Keep learning as much as you can. And I hope you will follow the same example of the leaders and volunteers who are in this room with you, and when you’re done, reach back. Reach back and help other girls get their education. Because when you do that, you will truly become part of a network of women worldwide using their education to lift up their families, their communities and their country.
And being here today with all of you, I am truly so excited to see the lives you all will transform and the impact you’ll have in our world.
So I want to end by just simply saying thank you, and making sure you all know how proud we are of you — so proud. All of you are doing the hard work of change. And you should be proud of yourselves.
So keep it up. Promise? (Laughter.) Thank you all so much.