UK

Michelle Obama tells pupils of her own self-doubts

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Media captionStudents 'inspired' by Michelle Obama

US First Lady Michelle Obama has told a group of British schoolgirls she knows of their fears for the future because she felt them herself when she was their age.

This was a different kind of transatlantic special relationship.

Michelle Obama was meeting a group of north London secondary schoolgirls, brought to Oxford University to raise their ambitions.

They were pupils from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in Islington - a school which Mrs Obama visited two years ago on her first solo event as First Lady.

And this time round the venue was the historic hall of Christ Church. It was a kind of Hogwarts - with secret servicemen and TV cameras.

'Don't be afraid'

Under the oil-painted gazes of former collegians, all very dead, white males, Mrs Obama told the schoolgirls that they had to break through all the barriers of prejudice and self doubt.

She had faced the same doubts about "fitting in" when she went to college, she said. "Doubts don't go away, you just learn to deal with them."

It would be easy to be cynical about this type of motivational team-talk. But Mrs Obama really seemed to connect with these youngsters. It was a curiously intimate, relaxed, animated conversation, despite the cameras and the control-freakery of the security.

She told them "don't be afraid to fail, don't be afraid to take chances". She told them to take the message that they shouldn't be intimidated from applying to places such as Oxford.

These were girls from a secondary school where most pupils qualify for free school meals, where 59 different languages are spoken, one in five are refugees or asylum seekers, where 91% of pupils are from ethnic minorities.

Christ Church, this one single college, had produced 13 prime ministers, some of whom were looking down sombrely from their portraits on the walls.

These girls had come to visit Oxford University as part of the university's attempt to open doors and young minds to the idea that academic excellence isn't the same thing as social elitism.

Image caption Addressing the youngsters, Mrs Obama said "How are you doing? It's good to see you again"

The university spends a great deal of thought - and gets plenty of grief - over the question of how it selects the youngsters with the greatest potential.

But one of the girls wanted to know about Mrs Obama's talent spotting skills. Did Barack Obama look like presidential material when she met him?

What attracted her, she said, was the fact that he was different from the career-driven, money-hungry lawyers around them.

She liked that he was funny and smart, a "voracious reader", "not impressed with himself" and "low key". She also highlighted the strength of his relationship with his mother and that he got on well with women.

The schoolgirls wanted to know what life was like in the presidential family.

She told them about its surreal contrasts. Buckingham Palace one night, watching soccer and checking homework the next.

Maybe she'd already seen one motorcade too many, as she told the girls the whole point of the presidency was to help young people such as themselves.

"The dresses, the cars, the horses, the carriages... I can watch that on TV," she told them with a shrug.

It all seemed very genuine and unrehearsed as the girls queued for an individual First Lady hug. It had been a disarmingly warm show of support for these girls.

Then they waved her off, as she drove away in a convoy of seven heavily armoured cars, rumbling slowly across the ancient quadrangle.

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