Former First Lady Michelle Obama surprised a handful of students meeting with Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis at the Huhugam Heritage Center outside Chandler Feb. 12 before her Comerica Theatre book tour stop that night.
The students, ranging in age from junior high to college, were quiet when Obama’s striking presence entered the room with her husband’s former top adviser, Valerie Jarrett.
“We have no agenda other than to hear from you guys,” Obama said, smiling. “What are you guys talking about? Don’t let us stop you.”
Lewis, who received an unexpected call about the visit only the week prior, had just asked the young adults what they were doing for Valentine’s Day.
“We can groove,” Obama said, following a similar remark by Lewis. “I keep telling my kids, ‘I am cool. You don’t know it, but I am.’”
Secret Service kept a close eye on Obama and the school, as nearly 25 motorcycle and automobile police officers guarded outside the community center off the 347.
Obama heard the students’ troubles with transitioning to mainstream schools off the reservation.
“We’re finding ways to support our youth when they go to school off the reservation,” Lewis said. “We’re a very close community. I know each and every one of their families. I know their parents and grandparents. It’s hard to go off the reservation to study.”
Obama said she could relate.
“I can relate to being the only one,” she said. “It takes a toll on you in a way the majorities don’t understand.”
Schools and universities should expand their admission practices so students aren’t the only ones.
“They should feel like they have a place,” she said. “I still feel like I’m transitioning as one of the few.”
The governor’s son, Daniel Lewis, explained he wants to help his peers on the reservation. He is a sophomore at Arizona State University who is studying political science and Native American studies.
“I went to Catholic high school like Samaira (Juan, a fellow attendee),” he said. “That transition was a big leap for me. That transition was like a whole ‘nother world. It was just like me and two other Native Americans in my whole class.
“The point is, all kids on the reservation deserve that type of elevated learning experience. After college, I want to push that with STEM and STEAM, they can get a well-rounded education. I think that will elevate them to excellence.”
Adam Cardona Jr. is a high school senior but took a common-sense approach to college. He’s considering ASU Polytechnic or University of Arizona.
“I’m going to make them compete for me,” he told Obama.
“Excellent,” she said. “Make sure they put the money on the table.”
Obama quietly listened to each of the students describe their passions and dreams. When they were finished, she had encouraging messages for each. Perhaps the most touching talk was with Charisma Quiroz, a District 1 representative who is studying political science at the University of Arizona.
Quiroz listed her impressive resume before admitting she had a speech impediment, which was hardly recognizable.
“I have to say, I can’t tell you have a speech impediment,” said Obama, whose book “Becoming” was a best seller. “You are articulate and poised. Whatever you think isn’t working is working. I’m so proud of you.”