Michelle Obama empowers high school seniors in Chicago

theGRIO REPORT - It wasn’t difficult for first lady Michelle Obama to relate to a group of recently graduated Chicago Public high school seniors Thursday...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

CHICAGO—It wasn’t difficult for first lady Michelle Obama to relate to a group of recently-graduated Chicago public high school seniors Thursday.

On a trip to her hometown, Mrs. Obama praised the work of Urban Alliance Chicago, a Washington, D.C.-based career training program that gets high school seniors internships with top companies and helps prepare them for post-secondary education.

“To you all students for having the courage to step outside your comfort zones, that was probably initially pretty scary,” she told the inaugural class of Urban Alliance Chicago. “I know that feeling.  I was you guys — I say that all the time — living on the South Side, looking at these buildings, wondering what it was like to work in those offices, finding real opportunities for myself, when I didn’t have networks or connections,” she said.

The Urban Alliance program provides year-long paid internships for under-served high school seniors. Interns are able to work part time with a public or private sector job partner for four days a week and attend professional development workshops one day a week. Mrs. Obama, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and wife Amy Rule, who has heavily promoted the program and is the board co-chair, spoke to the group of 60 students before a closed session with students.

“The Urban Alliance is making a tremendous impact on the lives of Chicago youth by providing them with real work experience that they can build upon for a successful future,” Emanuel said. “I am pleased to see the accomplishments that these extraordinary high school seniors have made through this initiative and look forward to the Urban Alliance’s continued success through their investment and commitment to Chicago children.”

Supporters say programs like Urban Alliance Chicago could help stem youth violence, an issue that’s gained national attention for plaguing the streets of Chicago.

“Programs like this are an answer in so many ways to stemming the tide of violence for kids in so many communities, giving them an opportunity to envision a world outside of gang-banging, hanging on the streets, dropping out,” Mrs. Obama said.

The students agree. Seventeen-year-old Diamond Owens said, “I think this type of program helps teenagers stay out of trouble and keeps them busy.”

Owens has been interning at a downtown Chicago hotel and hopes to work in the hospitality industry after graduating from college. “This is just a wonderful program. It definitely helped me focus,” she told theGrio.

Darnell Gaines, 18, is interning at a law firm this summer and said the recent George Zimmerman trial for the 2012 death of teen Trayvon Martin inspired him to become an attorney.

“The Trayvon Martin case has really pushed me to want to become a lawyer, because the evidence that I saw and the things that I’ve seen, I thought he should have been locked away and now it has driven me more to become a lawyer,” he said. Continuing, Gaines said that having the chance to talk with Mrs. Obama was “one of the greatest experiences that I’ve had so far!”

Urban Alliance student Brianna Miller, who’s interning at a public relations firm, asked Mrs. Obama what words of wisdom she’d have for her as she steps into a new phase of her life, being not quite sure of herself.

“Know that you can’t do it by yourself, and you don’t have to. The mentors that you’ve created through this program, take them with you, because you just want to have a heads up… Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and use your voice,” Mrs. Obama said, sending a message to all of the students present. “You can do this!”

Renita D. Young is a Chicago-based multimedia journalist. Follow her on Twitter @RenitaDYoung.