REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
AND THE FIRST LADY
IN HONOR OF NATIONAL MENTORING MONTH
4:07 P.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Please sit. Hello, everyone, and welcome to the White House.
I’m thrilled to be here with all of you as we celebrate National Mentoring Month. Mentors have played an incredibly important role in my life and in the President’s life. That’s why last November, the women, we started a leadership and mentoring program here at the White House for some of the most promising students in Washington, D.C. And that’s why today we’re so happy to welcome a new group of mentors and mentees here with us today, and I hope you’re as excited about this program as we are. Are you? Can I hear a little excitement? (Applause.)
I want to start by thanking everyone for joining us today from all across the country, both the old folks and the young folks. And some of the young people here have been with their mentors for a while now, I understand. And some of you are meeting your mentors for the first time today.
For those of you starting out today, we are honored to be able to pair you with some incredibly talented people who help run our government and help the President do his job each and every day. All of your mentors are taking time out of their busy schedules — and they are busy these days — because they want to hear from you. This is sincere. People are doing this because they want to be a part of your lives, they want to hear about your hopes and dreams and your passions and your struggles. They are here because they believe in your potential and they want to share some of the lessons that they’ve learned along the way, because even though they might look a little old — (laughter) — remember that these men were standing in your shoes not too long ago.
These are the kind of relationships we’ve been building with our young women over the past few months, and the leadership mentoring program is one of the most exciting programs, and I’m so proud of the work that we’ve done. And with our young girls over these past few months, we’ve studied the history and protocol that go into hosting a state dinner. They were with us during the first state dinner. We’ve gotten a behind-the-scenes look at events here at the White House and around D.C. Many of them have accompanied me in my motorcade and they’ve spent time with me at events.
We’ve done our own share of service. We packed bags of food for folks in need. And we’ve learned a lot about the dos and don’ts of applying for a job and starting a career, because we want this experience to be very practical for the young girls as well.
And we’ve had a lot of fun so far, and we’ve gotten to do much more than we thought. It’s been just a terrific time.
But the biggest lesson our girls have learned and the one I hope you all learn as you embark on this program is that each of us has the ability to move beyond the circumstances that we were born into. That’s really the story of both me and the President, that through hard work and perseverance, that you can actually choose the life that you want to live — it’s your choice.
So I hope that each of you will take full advantage of this opportunity, and by taking full advantage that means once you get over the initial shock of being here — (laughter) — that you ask questions, that you really take time to get to know your mentors; don’t wait for them to ask you — find out every single thing about them — their families, their education, their challenges, their struggles. Get to know them, and also in the process realize your own potential.
The only thing that we ask in return, and we said this to the girls, is that when this is all over, that you give back, that you do the same for someone else. That’s the only thing we ask of you. Because the beauty of being a mentor is that anyone can do it at any age. So that means if there’s a sibling in your life, a friend, a cousin, another person down the road, you can thank your own mentor for turning around and helping pull someone else up. You can do that by doing the same.
Think about that right now. Not just today but in every aspect of your life, that’s a commitment that both the President and I have made, that no matter how far we climb we’re always looking back to figure out who we can pull up along the way. And it’s never too soon for each of you.
So thank you all so much for coming. We are proud of all of you, not just the mentees but the mentors, for the work that you’re doing. And now I have one final honor, and that is to introduce one of our star mentees: the Little Brother of the year, Anthony Saldaña. Let’s give him a warm — (applause.)
MR. SALDAÑA: Being a part of Big Brothers Big Sisters has been one of the best experiences of my life. This program means that in addition to my grandma and grandpa, I get to spend time with a wonderful guy like Ben, who is on stage here today. (Laughter.)
I’m so glad that President Obama supports mentoring programs so that more kids like me can have a mentor. So I’m honored to introduce the President of the United States, Barack Obama, a strong supporter of mentoring and a role model for lots of young people like me. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you. Please have a seat.
Thank you, Anthony, for that outstanding introduction. And thank you, Michelle Obama — also known around here as “FLOTUS,” which stands for First Lady of the United States. I’m “POTUS.” (Laughter.)
Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome. I’m glad you all could join us today as we mark National Mentoring Month here at the White House. And as I said, Anthony did a wonderful job introducing me. I’m told that with the guidance of his mentor, Ben De Leon — where’s Ben? There’s Ben right there. Anthony, I hear you’re working hard, doing great in school. And so we are very proud of you and we expect you to keep up the good work. And Ben, thank you for your extraordinary service.
I do want to thank Michelle for launching our White House Mentoring Program. This is one of those that I can’t take full credit for. She has shown extraordinary leadership on this issue in our administration.
We’ve got several members of Congress here: Representatives Susan Davis, Gwen Moore, and Mike Rogers. Why don’t you guys stand up so everybody can see you? (Applause.) They’ve done terrific work promoting mentoring. Thanks to Acting CEO Nicky Goren, as well as John Kelly and Kristin McSwain, from the Corporation for National and Community Service, and to the members of our Federal Mentoring Council for all their great work. Please give them a big round of applause. (Applause.)
And I want to recognize all the mentors who are here — including the people who are up on stage with their mentees, for their encouragement, their inspiration, the example they’re providing to young people all across this country.
And finally, I want to recognize the outstanding young men who are here today who are joining our White House mentoring program. It’s going to be a program that matches them up with caring adults from our staff here at the White House. And I had a chance to meet them earlier. They’re wonderful young men, although one of them started talking trash about basketball already. (Laughter.) I mean, it didn’t take but five minutes before he was explaining how he was going to rain down jumpers on me. (Laughter.)
Now, to all those young men, you were chosen because of the promise that you’ve shown — because of your willingness to work, your eagerness to learn, your determination to succeed. And all of you deserve enormous credit for that. It’s not easy being a young person these days. Fewer young people are growing up in homes with two parents. I’m one of those people who didn’t grow up with two parents in a household. Parents are working longer hours and they’ve got less time to spend with their kids. And many young people don’t have the advantage of living in those tight-knit neighborhoods that many of us who are older grew up in, where people looked out for each other, and for each other’s children.
We’ve also seen a rise of a popular culture that doesn’t exactly celebrate diligence and self-discipline, but instead sends a message that you can be rich and famous without doing any work; that your ticket to success is only through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star. And many young people don’t have anyone in their lives to counteract that message — to tell them that gratification that comes instantaneously usually disappears just as quickly, and that real success in life comes from commitment and persistence, effort, hard work.
I know something about the impact these factors can have in the life of a child. As I mentioned earlier, my father left my family when I was two years old. I was raised by a single mom who struggled at times to provide for me and my sister. And while I was lucky to have loving grandparents who poured everything they had into helping my mother take care of us, I still felt the weight of my father’s absence throughout my childhood.
So I wasn’t always focused in school the way I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of. I got in more trouble than I should have. Without a bunch of second chances and a whole lot of luck, my life could have taken easily a turn for the worse.
But many kids today aren’t as lucky. They’ve got a much smaller margin for error. A generation or two ago, if you didn’t finish school, or if you only had a high school diploma, you could still make a pretty decent living. That’s usually not the case today. More than ever, success in life depends on success in school. And young people who start down the wrong path and don’t have anybody to steer them straight aren’t just consigning themselves to a life of financial hardship, they’re consigning all of us to an economy that’s less competitive and a nation that doesn’t fulfill its promise.
That’s why mentoring is so important. We know the difference a responsible, caring adult can make in a child’s life: buck them up when they’re discouraged; provide tough love when they veer off track; being that person in their lives who doesn’t want to let them down, and that they don’t want to let down; and refusing to give up on them — even when they want to give up on themselves.
Studies have shown that young people in mentoring relationships get better grades in school, they’re less likely to drink, they’re less likely to do drugs. And you ask any successful person how they got to where they are today, chances are they’ll tell you about a mentor they had somewhere along the way.
The great poet and author Maya Angelou didn’t discover poetry until her mentor took her to the tiny library at her school and challenged her to read every book in the room. Co-founder and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, was an incorrigible troublemaker until his 4th grade teacher took him under her wing and convinced him to focus on math instead of mischief. That turned out pretty well. Ray Charles first discovered his gift for music when, at the age of three, his next-door neighbor taught him how to play the piano. And it was the enthusiasm of her mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, that drew Dr. Carol Greider to the groundbreaking work in genetics that would win both of them the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
So there’s no doubt about the value of mentoring. And there’s no doubt about the tremendous need for mentors in this country — with at least 15 million young people in need of a mentor. What we need now is for committed adults to step forward and help us meet that need.
Now, I understand times are tough, and I know people are busy. And so sometimes people think, well, I’d like to do it but I’m not sure I can make the commitment. Here’s the thing people need to understand: It doesn’t take much to make a big difference. A couple of hours a week shooting hoops, helping with homework, talking about what’s going on in their lives can make a big, lasting impact in the life of a young person.
And as the folks up here on stage will tell you, the mentor usually gets as much or more out of it than the mentee. So I’m pleased that non-profit organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters are stepping up — expanding their efforts to connect children of deployed service members to mentors who are often veterans themselves.
Corporations are stepping up as well. Viacom, for example, is working with a national non-profit called MENTOR to provide flextime to employees who sign up to be mentors and to produce educational materials for mentoring organizations across the country.
Government is doing its part too — launching the serve.gov/mentor Web site to help people find mentoring opportunities, and expanding mentoring efforts in Native American communities and in rural areas, working with the Federal Mentoring Council to ensure that our initiatives and investments are coordinated, effective, and focused on those most in need.
But here’s the thing — and I’m talking specifically to the young people who are here today — in the end, we can start all kinds of mentoring programs and give you guys all the mentors in the world, but it won’t make much of a difference unless you do your parts as well. That’s the thing about mentoring — it’s a two-way street.
So we need you engaged here. We need you to open up. As Michelle said, you’ve got to ask questions, you’ve got to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Michelle does that every day. It’s not a sign of weakness to look for help, to try to answer questions that you don’t know the answers to — it’s a sign of strength when you do that. It shows that you have the courage to admit when you’re unsure of yourself, and the willingness to learn and grow and become a better person.
If young people like you are willing to do this, and if compassionate, committed adults are willing to step up, then think about the incredible impact that we can have. Think about the potential that we will discover, and the talent that we will nurture, and the lives that we can turn around, and the effect that we can have on our schools and our communities and the future of this country.
That’s the power of mentoring. That’s the purpose of what all of you are doing across America. And today, I thank you for your work, and I look forward to working with all of you in the months and years ahead. And I’m especially looking forward to seeing all the young men who are here as they spend time in the White House over the next several months.
So thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.)