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Michelle Obama surprises Howard University students

Nick Cannon goes back to school and the first lady talks the importance of education

When you’re greeted with this special of a guest in the middle of your school day, you just might be as surprised as these Howard University students were Thursday.

First lady Michelle Obama and her motorcade traveled just a few miles from the White House to Howard for a surprise visit to more than 200 freshmen, most of them majoring in business.

She was accompanied by newly enrolled Howard freshman Nick Cannon, host of NBC’s America’s Got Talent, and Seth Meyers, host of NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers, who is a graduate of Northwestern University. The three were there as part of her Reach Higher initiative and Better Make Room campaign.

They took questions from the students. The answers will be used for a segment that will air next week on Late Night.

“I know I’ve told this story before, but when I applied to colleges, I had people who told me that I was reaching too high, that the schools I was applying to were too much for me,” Obama said. “And then I got there, and I looked around and I thought I’m as smart as these people, what were they thinking?

“So for all of you sitting here with those doubts in your head, because those whispers of doubt, they stay with you for a very long time — ignore them. Brush them off. And just do the work. Do the work. And it’s the doing of the work that gets you through. It’s not what other people think of you. And I still carry that with me today as first lady of the United States, because there are people who don’t think I should be doing that, either. And it’s been about eight years now.”

Before heading into the crowd to take questions, Cannon explained why he decided to enroll at Howard.

“Honestly, I’m not here for a degree. I’m here because I have a real thirst for knowledge,” Cannon said. “And I feel like that’s why we’re all here in this room. But honestly, because I felt like I’ve done so many things in my career and I’ve always been the youngest and the first to do so many things in entertainment, but I always felt like people would surpass me that had the experience of college. And I was jealous of that. And then, obviously even once I became a father and I wanted to be an example for my kids, I was like, well, I’m always talking about being an advocate for education, I got to walk the walk.”



Cannon called out his brother, who is also enrolled at Howard. “I got my brother here. He’s a junior, but he doesn’t want to hang out with me because I’m a freshman!”

“He’s embarrassed by you,” Obama replied. “You’re just a young freshman.”

The three talked education, the importance of internships and the best way to de-stress when things get hard.

Nick Cannon taking questions from a crowd of students at Howard University.

Nick Cannon taking questions from a crowd of students at Howard University.

Kelley Evans | The Undefeated

“College was probably the most impactful thing that I have done in my life other than being the first lady and having kids and marrying Barack Obama. But college did everything for me. I mean, it built my confidence, No. 1. It taught me that I could leave home and be successful away from home. It taught me how to open up, how to try new things that are scary, how to buck expectations and beat the odds, and all that good stuff,” Obama said.

She said she could not do any internships because she had a work-study job. But she stressed the importance of internships.

“Some people need more practical experience — I know I did. And internships give you those opportunities to try some ideas for yourself on, to try some careers on,” she said.

As a radio/TV/film major in college, Meyers said he was “lucky enough to know” what he wanted to do when he was a freshman.

“I knew my passion to some degree,” Meyers said. “I thought I wanted to be a film director, and then I realized I didn’t — wasn’t good at it. But I was lucky enough to know that that’s what I wanted to do, and I studied things that I wanted to do.”

The first lady said laughter helped her to de-stress.

“I remember when I was in college, some of the best times would be just hanging out with the people that you love laughing with,” she said. “You know, finding some humor in this situation that is college and life, and doing it with a little music and some food. I still do that now.”

Also on deck to warm up the crowd was Amber Ruffin, the first black female writer on a late-night show.

Amber Ruffin

Kelley Evans/The Undefeated

Launched nearly one year ago, the first lady’s Reach Higher initiative is a program to reach students when they are on social media and mobile devices by giving them advice and a place to celebrate education and get connected to important resources that will help them get to and through college.

Kelley Evans is a digital producer at Andscape. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic Southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.