Former US first lady Michelle Obama said she has been “moved, touched and inspired” by London schoolgirls as she returned to a secondary school in the capital that she first visited in 2009.
Mrs Obama paid another visit to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School (EGA) as part of her book tour for her autobiography Becoming.
She first met pupils from the school during the G20 summit nine years ago, when she had only been first lady for a few months, and later hosted a dozen pupils at the White House.
Mrs Obama was reunited with some of the pupils she first met in 2009 who are now alumni of the school, as well as pupils from nearby Mulberry School, which she visited in 2015.
EGA was closed for the day and 300 students aged between 11 and 16 chose to attend the event, which was part of an extra-curricular conference addressing themes including community cohesion and civic engagement.
Joined on stage by former EGA pupils Winnie Mac and Letrishka Anthony, and Nusrath Hassan, a former pupil of Mulberry School, she said: “Meeting the girls here and the girls at Mulberry reminded me how much courage and talent and hope there is.”
Mrs Obama added: “On a personal level I was moved and touched and inspired as I always am by the young people I meet around the world. It gives me a level of focus and determination when I get to see you all up close.
“And as I said then, you remind me of me and all the fears and all the challenges that you face. You give me a sense of comfort because being first lady wasn’t the easiest job in the world but I got strength from you, so thank you all for that, thanks for giving me that.”
Before Mrs Obama’s arrival, many of the girls stood up in front of their peers in the crowded gym to make pledges about actions they would take to have a positive impact on their school and their wider community.
These included encouraging positive speech and not labelling people, speaking out about bullying and being mindful about those with disabilities.
The pledges were all met with cheers and applause from the assembled pupils.
During her conversation on stage, Mrs Obama encouraged the pupils to practise supporting each other.
She told them: “We as women don’t have the luxury of tearing each other down, there are enough barriers out there.
“There are enough people out there ready to tear us down, our job is to lift each other up, so we have to start practising now. There is no room for mean girls and cliques and social complications that naturally come at your age. I want you to be mindful of that.”
She added: “That is one thing we can do better as women, we can take better care of each other.”
Mrs Obama said one of her biggest points of pride from her time as first lady was “raising my daughters and having them turn out sane, because it wasn’t a guarantee”.
We as women don’t have the luxury of tearing each other down, there are enough barriers out thereMichelle Obama
She added: “We put them in a tough situation, they grew up with a harsh light of international judgment on them as they were your age.
“Imagine being your age and have your father criticised in public, having everything you say and post analysed, your first boyfriend plastered all over the tabloids or going to prom with men with guns, going to soccer practice and people taking pictures of you because of who you are.
“At the very age they just needed to blend in, they couldn’t because we forced them into a life where they stand out.”
She added: “I am proud that there are any young people who look at the work that we have done and see different possibilities for themselves. Truly, for me, if there is anyone out there who sees a different possibility for themselves and they act on that because of something we did, that is where real change happens.”
Asked how she feels to be a “symbol of hope” in troubled times, she said: “I still have a little impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me.
“It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.
“If I’m giving people hope then that is a responsibility, so I have to make sure that I am accountable.
“We don’t have any choice but to make sure we elders are giving our young people a reason to hope.”
Mrs Obama also spoke about ways diversity in the top universities can be improved, saying: “Part of what we have to do is expose them to the opportunities. All kids can only dream things that are known to them. If they don’t see elite colleges, if they don’t know they exist, they don’t know what to dream of.”
Referring to the trip she took to Oxford University with 37 EGA pupils in 2011, she said: “This is why our visit to Oxford was so important. Colleges and universities have to start doing the work reaching out to kids very young… we have to start working on that pipeline much earlier.
“We can’t wait until we have two years out from college. We need to start talking to them early, that includes not just conversations but visits, what is it like in a dormitory, to sit in a lecture.”
While US President Donald Trump was not referred to by name, Mrs Obama did refer to “the bitterness, the nastiness that we see in politics”.
Discussing if she still believes in her motto “When they go low, we go high”, she said: “My answer is, ‘What choice do we have?’”
She also said she saw the challenges to minorities in the US manifesting themselves in “inequality, ignorance, racism, homophobia”.
“The one challenge we have in our country is harnessing the power that we do have and not relinquishing that, and I mean voting.
“In our country, every American has one vote but there are people who use that vote every time and people who don’t use it at all and sometimes those folks can least afford it.
“In the past election, rather than campaigning for a candidate, we invested time in educating people about the power of voting.”