WU sophomore speaks with Michelle Obama in national conversation with college students

| Contributing Reporter
A woman in a black suit waves in front of a crowd of peopleCourtesy of Creative Commons

Michelle Obama waves to the crowd at a rally in 2008.

Natasha Chisholm, a sophomore selected to represent Washington University, spoke with former first lady Michelle Obama about her memoir “Becoming” in a conversation with college students across the country, Nov. 9.

The event, titled “‘Becoming’: Michelle Obama in Conversation,” invited student representatives from 22 colleges and universities to join Obama at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md. as part of a collegiate readership program. Chisholm engaged in conversation with 13 other students representing a variety of schools, including the University of Chicago, Howard University, the University of Michigan and the Community College of Baltimore County. Actress Yara Shahidi, best known for her role in acclaimed television series Black-ish and Grown-ish, moderated the conversation. 

Students gathered at watch parties on campus both in Risa Commons and Tisch Commons to watch a live stream of the conversation. Chisholm said that meeting with Obama was an “opportunity of a lifetime.”

“Maintaining balance and being vulnerable and bold to share your life story is one of the many things I learned from the conversation with [Obama], and it is something I have been struggling with,” Chisholm said. “Mrs. Obama’s words told me that there are people listening, and the only way to connect to people is to be bold enough to tell my story.”

Student representatives shared their experiences and vulnerabilities, while Obama offered insights into her life in the White House and gave thoughtful assurances and advice, urging young people to step out of their comfort zone and converse with others of different backgrounds. 

During the discussion, Obama spoke about the topic of imposter syndrome in the workplace, especially for women and people of color. Chisholm contributed to the conversation, describing her own struggles of always having someone negatively commenting on any success she achieved. 

“Since I did well in school, people would say how I am a ‘try hard’ or I’m trying to be white, and when I sometimes asked a question that wasn’t the smartest, all of a sudden I was stupid and having an off-day,” Chisholm said. “It seemed that I couldn’t meet the standard that so many people set for me, and I think this is where my wanting to be invisible started.”

In response, Obama advised the students to practice making their voices heard and to remember that they deserve to be there as much as anyone else. “Don’t let anybody silence you like that,” Obama told Chisholm.

Chisholm was selected from an applicant pool of 44 students, according to Associate Director for Residential Faculty Engagement Stephanie Weiskopf. Residential Life bought 2,500 copies of “Becoming” at a discounted price through Obama’s collegiate readership program and distributed them to undergraduate students outside the First-Year Center.

I think it’s a really cool program that we are participating in something alongside other colleges and college students,” Weiskopf added.

Weiskopf said the turnaround to apply to be Washington University’s delegate was very quick, with the essay submission deadline only eight days after the books were distributed to the student body. “I was pretty overwhelmed by how many students [applied] because the lead time was really only a week,” she said. 

Student Affairs staff reviewed the applications for basic information and other program requirements such as being fully vaccinated and reading the full book, before blindly reading application essays, Weiskopf said. From analyzing responses for interpretation of the prompt to grammar, the most important aspect was an applicant’s demonstrated connection to the themes of the memoir. After the committee narrowed down their choices between two delegates, Chisholm was selected. 

“I’m surprised that I didn’t initially feel nervous and the immense amount of pressure this achievement holds,” Chisholm said about being selected as a delegate. “Either I hadn’t fully processed how big of a deal this was or thought the selection committee had made a mistake or what not, I didn’t know how to feel. I was just extremely grateful to be chosen to represent WashU.”

Chisholm chose to focus her essay on the feeling of having to straddle different worlds and her experience of constantly having other people in society define what being Black is. “I wrote about how I’m defining my own Blackness and increasingly finding security in myself and my culture,” she added. 

Chisholm shared an excerpt from her piece in an interview with Student Life: “This is what I’ve figured out so far: I’m a Black woman, which means that I am full of brains and beauty, academically and emotionally intelligent,” she wrote. “Not many people in society appreciate my presence, and not many people understand that I have the ambition to change minds through social movements, but they soon will find out.”

Chisholm said that the section of Obama’s memoir that stood out to her the most was Obama’s description of her experience at Princeton University.

“I’ve been feeling imposter syndrome recently and sometimes I feel like, even more so because I think of the stigma behind affirmative action, my mind sometimes goes to the place that says that the only reason why I’m here is because of my race,” Chisholm said. “So reading about Mrs. Obama’s experience in college reminded me that I deserve to be here.”

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