In final White House event, First Lady promotes diversity, higher education, empowering youth
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, January 6, 2017 – An outstanding Indian-American teenager, Swetha Prabakaran of Ashburn, Virginia, has been appointed to the inaugural Student Advisory Board of First Lady Michelle Obama’s education campaign, ‘Better Make Room’.
Swetha, whose parents immigrated from Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli in 1998, is a senior at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) in Alexandria. She is the only Indian-American student among seventeen selected from across the country for the First Lady’s campaign – twelve are in high school and five in college.
It is a rare honor though Swetha, now 17, has been in the limelight before. She is a 2015 White House ‘Champion of Change’ and at the young age of 15 became the founder of Everybody Code Now!, a non-profit working to empower the next generation of youth to become engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs.
According to a White House statement, “Under Swetha’s direction, Everybody Code Now! has taught hundreds of students how to code and has raised thousands of dollars for STEM activities in schools. Her mentorship programs have transformed shy young girls into confident students, community leaders and budding technologists”.
Swetha discovered that, in 2011, only 0.4 percent of college female freshmen intended to pursue a computer science-related degree, and there are very few female engineers in America. Such startling statistics led her to encourage elementary and high school students to take up computer science, and she started a series of Coding camps at local elementary schools in Virginia.
“Kids absolutely loved it”, she recalls. Swetha now works with partners across the US and globe “to show girls worldwide that they have an opportunity in this field that is just waiting for them to make their mark on it”, she says.
Swetha’s commendable efforts to empower youth made her the perfect choice to serve as student advisor to Better Make Room, a social media campaign which supports and inspires young people to complete higher education. The initiative is part of the First Lady’s signature ‘Reach Higher’ movement which she launched in 2014 “to make higher education cool”, as she says.
On Friday, Michelle Obama welcomed Swetha and her fellow student advisors, together with dedicated school counselors from around the nation, in the ornate East Room of the White House for her final event as First Lady. It was a parting gift from the finest lady who has done so much to promote education – keep kids in school and encourage them to pursue higher studies.
Her remarks were heartfelt, profoundly moving. Looking at all the young people in the room, she said, “Know that this country belongs to you – to all of you, from every background and walk of life. If you or your parents are immigrants, know that you are part of a proud American tradition – the infusion of new cultures, talents and ideas, generation after generation, that has made us the greatest country on earth”.
The First Lady, adored by so many, spoke of diversity, of inclusiveness, in a way only she can. “If you are a person of faith, know that religious diversity is a great American tradition, too. In fact, that’s why people first came to this country – to worship freely. And whether you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh – these religions are teaching our young people about justice and compassion, and honesty. So, I want our young people to continue to learn and practice those values with pride. You see, our glorious diversity – our diversities of faiths and colors and creeds – that is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are”, she said, to loud applause.
To all young people, she underscored, “Do not ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t matter, or like you don’t have a place in our American story – because you do. And you have a right to be exactly who you are”, she said.
At the same time, the First Lady cautioned that this right has to be earned every single day and students cannot take their freedoms for granted. Her advice to them was to get the best education possible and work hard so they can add their voice to the national conversation.
“If your family doesn’t have much money, I want you to remember that in this country, plenty of folks, including me and my husband – we started out with very little”, Michelle Obama told the students. “But, with a lot of hard work and a good education, anything is possible – even becoming President. That’s what the American dream is all about”, she said, to loud cheers.
Her message to the young people was as clear as it was heartening, and heartbreaking given that it was her last as First Lady. “I want our young people to know that they matter, that they belong”, she said. “So, don’t be afraid – you hear me, young people? Don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered. Empower yourself with a good education, then get out there and use that education to build a country worthy of your boundless promise. Lead by example with hope, never fear. And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life”.
To all the students, educators and advocates in the room and across the country, she said, “Being your First Lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I’ve made you proud”.