Obama, who still lives in Washington, made an unexpected visit Tuesday to Ballou STAY High School to talk with 14 understudies for two hours. After arriving, she embraced each of them before sitting down in the circle.
“Once she came in, it was an inspirational feeling,” said Alliyah Williams, 18. “She was so sweet and warm. She was like a mom.”
After visiting the public alternative high school in Southeast Washington, she tweeted “Always love visiting DC schools. Thank you for hosting me today @BallouSTAY. Stories of students #reachinghigher continue to inspire me.” The tweet referenced the White House initiative “Reach Higher” she launched to encourage students to continue their education.
“Mrs. Obama had an emotional and heartfelt discussion with the students,” Caroline Adler Morales, a spokeswoman for the former first lady, wrote in an email. “There were tears, laughs and lots of hugs.”
While the Obamas shared a close rapport with D.C. Public Schools, the relationship with the Trump administration has had a rocky start. Protesters greeted Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she visited a D.C. school last month. DeVos later criticized teachers, prompting the school to send 11 tweets defending itself.
The previous White House occupants are still D.C. residents, renting a house in the Kalorama neighborhood at least while their youngest daughter finishes high school.
Ballou STAY principal Cara Fuller said she learned of the visit an hour before, although the students didn’t know until Obama walked in. Students had been expecting a discussion with new D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, so Fuller had selected the students to participate.
Fuller said the students ranged in age from 16 to 23. Four have children, some live in shelters, and others had been expelled from previous schools.
“I think she really just wanted a school and a group of students who are typically counted out to know that they themselves are amazing and wonderful and have the talents that they need to be successful,” Fuller said.
Fuller said Obama led an informal discussion, with students asking her how she met the former president and how she survived as first lady. In response to one question, Obama said she has no presidential aspirations, saying that she didn’t have the freedom to crack open a window in the White House because of security. Students also asked for her thoughts on Trump.
“They just asked what her thoughts were on the current president and they were deeply concerned about the rhetoric that has been going around,” she said.
At one point, a student told Obama of her struggles living in a shelter, and Obama walked the student through steps she could take to achieve her goals. Another student, Williams, told the former first lady she wants to be an anesthesiologist.
“She told me not to let anything get in the way, and she said don’t go back and help everyone until you get where you want to be,” said Williams, who has a 2-year-old son.
Fuller said one student, 18-year-old Vonte Walker, had never talked about his ambitions in school. Since Obama’s visit, he’s been telling the staff of his college plans.
“She motivated me,” Walker said.
Fuller recalled Obama calling a young mother in the class a “superstar” and listening to a student who said his biggest fear was making minimum wage at 40.
“These are students, students who no one says positive things to you generally, and it was really just to affirm their journey,” Fuller said.