Up until the day she left for Washington, D.C., in November, Salma Shire’s siblings didn’t believe she was about to meet Michelle Obama.
Just a few days prior, the Case Western Reserve University graduate student learned she had been selected out of 150 applicants to represent CWRU during a livestreamed discussion with Obama. The event—”Becoming: Michelle Obama in Conversation”—would feature a conversation about Obama’s book with a small group of students from participating universities, and aired last week on BET.
“After I found out I immediately went home and told my siblings—and none of them believed me,” explained Shire, who is a Master of Science in Pathology student. “I’d say, ‘I’m going to meet Michelle Obama in a few days,’ and they’d say, ‘yeah, me too!’ This joke went on until the day I left—then they were like, ‘wait, you’re really going?’”
From a young age, Shire’s parents made an effort to expose her and her siblings to stories of inspiring women pushing boundaries in both their education and careers. When her mom brought home Obama’s book Becoming, Shire instantly felt a sense of kinship with the former first lady. From their similar upbringings, to their shared interests and passions, Obama has served as relatable encouragement for Shire to continue overcoming obstacles and transcending barriers.
“We’re both Black, with backstories of a strict household in which excellence was not only encouraged, but expected,” wrote Shire in her application essay. “We both grew up in impoverished neighborhoods—her on the south side of Chicago, and me on the Northside of Columbus.”
Obama’s efforts to help improve the health of young children—such as the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act and the Let’s Move initiative—even inspired Shire and a handful of her 13 siblings to create their own initiative called Kick-Start Columbus, an experiential learning program addressing barriers to education and career success for students in the Franklin County School District.
On the day of the event in D.C., when the moment finally arrived, Shire was comforted by how warm and welcoming Obama was and how easily they were able to connect on so many topics. Shire shared her experience as a visibly Muslim woman who is also Black, and the pressure that often comes with being someone’s first introduction to Islam.
“I wanted to know how she would suggest we bring our own stories and experiences into spaces that haven’t really existed before and how we make space for ourselves, and she gave a really great response.” Obama’s advice? Don’t feel like you have to carry the weight of the world—just be your authentic self and be confident in your voice.
Reflecting on her experience, Shire not only feels grateful for the opportunity to have met Obama, but everyone else who participated.
“I was able to meet lots of wonderful students, and hearing their stories helped reinforce my desire to create change for this generation in the hopes of reducing the barriers that marginalized groups face,” said Shire. “I owe it to women like Michelle Obama for encouraging us all to live a fulfilling life for more than just ourselves.”