Mrs. Obama spoke to students Tuesday at Bell Multicultural High School just a few miles from the White House. Officials say the event is part of what will be a broader focus for the first lady on getting students — especially those in underserved communities — on track to attend college.
The first lady told students that meeting the 2020 goal is important, but their personal success is just as significant.
"No matter what the president does, no matter what your teachers and principals do, or whatever is going on in your home or neighbourhood, the person with the biggest impact on your education is you," Mrs. Obama said. "It's going to take young people like all of you across the country stepping up and taking control of your education."
Mrs. Obama also drew from her own experience as she encouraged students at the high school with a large immigrant population to attend college. She said neither of her parents went to college, but they had an "unwavering belief in the power of education."
The first lady said she attended one of the best high schools in Chicago across town that required her to wake up at 6 a.m. and travel at least an hour on the bus. Mrs. Obama, who grew up in a working class family, went on to Princeton University and Harvard Law School. But not before facing discouragement as she applied to Princeton, an Ivy League university.
"Some of my teachers straight up told me that I was setting my sights too high. They told me I was never going to get into a school like Princeton," Mrs. Obama said to a hushed crowd of 10th graders. "It was clear to me that nobody was going to take my hand and lead me to where I needed to go; instead it was going to be up to me to reach my goals."
Officials said Mrs. Obama is co-ordinating with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has been overseeing the president's efforts to boost the nation's college graduation rate. The president has cited statistics showing that the U.S. ranks 12th globally in the proportion of people who hold college degrees.
This new endeavour marks a slight but noticeable shift in emphasis for Mrs. Obama. While she frequently touts the value of education while speaking to students, she rarely connects those general comments with specific policy goals promoted by her husband.
Mrs. Obama challenged the students to emulate Menbere Assefa's story. Assefa, 22, is a Bell Multicultural alumna who graduated on scholarship from James Madison University in May. Her family emigrated from Ethiopia when she was 8 years old and stressed the importance of education.
"There's scholarships out there, there are funds out there for people to get and make sure that they attend higher education," said Assefa, who works as a management assistant in policy and compliance administration for the District of Columbia government.
In addition to access to various resources, Assefa said it's important that students know they are supported.
"This gives the students an opportunity to see that somebody else is supporting them, and motivating them as well, such as the first lady," Assefa said.
Following her remarks, Mrs. Obama participated in a question and answer panel where she shared some of her other challenges and lessons in college such as time management, procrastination, internal doubt and maintaining balanced meals on a college schedule.