The Ivy Coach Daily

November 14, 2018

Michelle Obama’s Princeton Experience

Obama at Princeton, Princeton Michelle Obama, Michelle Obama on Princeton
The former First Lady has spoken out on her experience at Princeton while an undergraduate (official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy).

Former First Lady Michelle Obama has long loved to tell the story about how her high school counselor said she didn’t have a reasonable shot of earning admission to Princeton University. Mrs. Obama, of course, earned admission to Princeton and, later, Harvard Law School. Her school counselor was wrong.

That said, we at Ivy Coach tell students every year that they don’t have a shot at Harvard University, Yale University, or Princeton with their less-than-impressive coursework and lack of standout AP scores. Simply telling a student their dream is unrealistic does not make one evil, as Mrs. Obama’s story seems to imply. Sometimes, students (and their parents) need to be delivered the right medicine so they don’t waste their Early card on a school that will prove to be an impossible dream. Because then not only will they not get in during the Early round, but they’ll never know if they could gotten into the likes of Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, or the University of Pennsylvania had they applied Early instead.

But the world already knows Mrs. Obama’s story about her high school counselor. Today, we thought we’d share a tidbit from her bestselling book Becoming on her experience at Princeton during her undergraduate years.

Before the book’s publication, Mrs. Obama had remained relatively tight-lipped about what it was like to attend the elite Ivy League institution in the 1980s, though her senior thesis, which focused on the perception of race and identity by some Black alumni of the university, has in the past made headlines, notably during campaigns. Yet many presumed the former First Lady didn’t enjoy her experience at Princeton. Was it the case?

Former First Lady Speaks Out on Princeton Experience

As Emma Whitford reported a few years back in an Inside Higher Ed piece on Mrs. Obama’s Princeton years as told in Becoming, “Obama disclosed for the first time details about her experience at the Ivy League university, one marked by feelings of otherness and a strong determination to disprove the negative racial stereotypes held by some of her professors and classmates. She graduated in 1985. ’If in high school I’d felt as if I were representing my neighborhood, now at Princeton I was representing my race. Anytime I found my voice in class or nailed an exam, I quietly hoped it helped make a larger point,’ she wrote. While she was a student, Princeton was ’​extremely white and very male.’”

Whitford went on to write, “Because of this, Obama quickly made friends with other students of color and discovered that the harmonious diversity portrayed in college brochures didn’t translate to her own college experience. ’I imagine that the administrators at Princeton didn’t love the fact that students of color largely stuck together. The hope was that all of us would mingle in heterogeneous harmony, deepening the quality of student life across the board. It’s a worthy goal. I understand that when it comes to campus diversity, the ideal would be to achieve something resembling what’s often shown on college brochures — smiling students working and socializing in neat, ethnically blended groups,’ Obama wrote. ’But even today, with white students continuing to outnumber students of color on college campuses, the burden of assimilation is put largely on the shoulders of minority students. In my experience, it’s a lot to ask.’”

Ivy Coach Applauds Michelle Obama for Her Candor

We at Ivy Coach applaud Mrs. Obama for her candid remarks on her Princeton experience and for highlighting “the burden of assimilation put on the shoulders of minority students.” She’s absolutely right.

Especially after the fall of Affirmative Action in June 2023 in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the consideration of race in the admissions process (though Chief Justice Roberts did lay the groundwork for a legal loophole that America’s elite universities have since exploited), it should be the burden of America’s elite universities to make sure that underrepresented minority students face no burden of so-called assimilation. Instead, it should be the burden of these universities to make everyone — irrespective of their race, socioeconomic status, family background, sexual orientation, gender identity, and, yes, faith — feel welcome.

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