Michelle Obama's Biggest Moments In Her Life So Far

When President Barak Obama gave his farewell address upon leaving the presidency and the White House, he made sure to thank the person who had been at his side the entire time. That, of course, was his wife and First Lady Michelle Obama, who was given her own rousing round of applause. It brought the audience to their feet. Not only was his love clear, but the nation's love, too.

"You took on a role you didn't ask for, and you made it your own with grace, and with grit, and with style, and with good humor," he said (via CBS). He teared up as he spoke: "You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation sets its sights higher because it has you as a role model. You have made me proud, and you have made the country proud."

He wasn't exaggerating, either. In 2020, Gallup reported that Michelle Obama was the nation's most admired woman, with around 10% of those surveyed mentioning her as the female role model they most looked up to. Why has she remained so popular? Lots of reasons. Let's look at some of the most important moments of her life — moments she used to make a difference for others.

Graduating from Princeton after an uphill battle

Michelle Obama famously graduated from Princeton University. In 2009, the Tap Room of the Nassau Inn unveiled her portrait, which was included among other university luminaries. At the same time, though, NJ.com says that it wasn't until her memoir, "Becoming," that she detailed just how hard the journey to get there had been.

Although she'd been at the top of her class in high school, a counselor told her (via Inside Higher Ed), "I'm not sure that you're Princeton material." The implication, Obama wrote, was clear, and in some cases, she didn't even know the extent of the racism she faced until years later. It was 27 years before she learned how horrified her roommate's mother had been that her daughter was sharing a room with a Black girl. She would write, "If in high school I'd felt as if I were representing my neighborhood, now at Princeton I was representing my race."

Obama also wrote about other challenges, from balancing schoolwork with her work-study job to feeling vastly ill-prepared for stepping into the college world. In a throwback Instagram post, she told other first-generation college students that she knew exactly how terrifying it was: "Going to college is hard work, but ... My advice to students is to be brave and stay with it." Much later, during an interview with Good Morning America, she teared up listening to current Princeton students say how much she had inspired them on their own journey.

Saying yes to mentoring a new intern at work

Looking back on life in hindsight, it's often possible to pinpoint the moment when everything changed. According to what Michelle Obama wrote in "Becoming," (via Quartz), one of those moments was her confirmation that sure, she would be happy to mentor her law firm's summer intern. She wrote: "You don't know that when a memo arrives to confirm the assignment, some deep and unseen fault line in your life has begun to tremble, that some hold is already starting to slip."

Taking the young intern named Barak Obama under her wing would, of course, lead to them eventually marrying, but the navigation of a workplace romance was only part of the story. While she had her path laid clearly in front of her and was well on her way through her stepping-stone advance from high school to a career climbing a law firm's ladder, "Barack's path was an improvisational zigzag through disparate worlds." And it not only made her realize that law might not be her thing after all.

It led her to a shocking conclusion: "I hated being a lawyer. I wasn't suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it." Her love for the force of nature that was Barack Obama made her realize that she needed to follow her heart in her professional life, too — so she ditched the law firm and headed to City Hall.

The death of her father

There is nothing like the grief that comes with the loss of a beloved parent, and Michelle Obama lost her father in 1991. He was only 55 years old, and according to what she wrote in "Becoming" (via Today), she could hardly remember a time when he had not been suffering from the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis. 

In 2022, Obama appeared on "REVOLT x Michelle Obama: The Cross Generational Conversation" (via People). She spoke about the inspiration that her father had been, recalling how, in spite of his pain, he had still gone uncomplaining to his job at a Chicago water plant and lived his life so his children could get a head start on theirs. Still, it was a life where he and his family shared the sort of moments that become memories: pizza on special occasions, pints of ice cream, and air shows in the summer.

"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about the lessons he taught us and how he is not here to see any of it, and so much of it is because of him," she said. His death was both heartbreaking and inspiring: In 2009, she told the graduating class of a Chicago high school (via Time), "He is the hole in my heart. His loss is my scar. But let me tell you something, his memory drives me forward every single day of my life."

Giving birth to her children

It's almost a cliché: Anyone who has children will likely count their birth among the most important moments of their lives. But for Michelle Obama, her story is a little different — and it only really came out in her memoir, "Becoming."

When the Associated Press got an advance copy of her book, one of the things they chose to report on was her straightforward, honest discussion about not only the difficulties she had in conceiving her two children but the miscarriage she experienced after her first positive pregnancy test. After the miscarriage, she turned to the long and often heartbreaking process of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Obama sat down with Good Morning America to discuss her struggles and loss, saying, "I felt lost and alone and I felt like I failed. Because I didn't know how common miscarriages were. Because we don't talk about them. We sit in our own pain, thinking that somehow, we're broken." The frank conversation, says The Washington Post, had the potential to break through the silence: Although miscarriages and problems conceiving are common, talking about them is still taboo — and that leaves many to suffer in silence. When high-profile women like Obama talk about their own experiences, it starts chipping away at the idea that this is something that's off-limits for discussion.

Becoming First Lady

When Barack Obama ran for president, his biggest champion was his wife. That's what made it so shocking when, in 2018, she revealed that she had initially agreed to the whole thing because she didn't think he was actually going to be elected (via CNN). Things obviously changed in hindsight, and while she said that she knew they hadn't done as much to overcome racism as they might have liked, she was grateful to have been part of progress.

Michelle Obama sat down with Oprah not long after stepping into her new role as First Lady and talked about everything from getting their daughters settled into a new routine, school, and home, to her plans for a White House garden. Redecorating and family values aside, Obama also talked about how she was well aware of the role she had to play, too, saying that she wasn't just going to be a First Lady in title, wearing fancy dresses and walking on the president's arm.

"... first and foremost he's my husband, my friend, and the father of my children. That didn't change ... But it doesn't mean I don't appreciate the gravity of what he's doing. The way I can honor that is by working by his side and adding value to what he's doing in any way that I can. That's my part in this."

Meeting Queen Elizabeth

In an Instagram video posted in 2022, Michelle Obama spoke about the first time she met Queen Elizabeth II. She recalled how nervous she was, and how the two shared a moment when they were standing around, waiting for all the formalities to be over, each with aching feet. It was a moment, she said, that had remained one of her most treasured memories of her time as First Lady.

It was the same moment, says Elle, that was the source of considerable controversy as everyone who wasn't actually involved was horrified that Obama had broken royal protocol to touch the queen. In addition to addressing the moment in her book, she also mentioned it at a talk at London's O2 arena, saying that many people who found their lives governed by protocol weren't actually interested in it. "In that moment ... That was absolutely the right thing to do, because it was the human thing to do," she explained.

After Queen Elizabeth II's death in 2022, the Obamas issued a joint statement (via Twitter) saying that the initial meeting had meant so much to them — they had been new to the whole diplomacy thing, and "she welcomed us to the world stage with open arms and extraordinary generosity. Time and again, we were struck by her warmth, the way she put people at ease, and how she brought her considerable humor and charm to moments of great pomp and circumstance."

Launching her Let's Move! initiative

Being First Lady means the chance to leave something behind, and in 2010, Michelle Obama announced the initiative that was going to be her legacy: the Let's Move! program. In a YouTube video, she spoke about how she completely understood the challenges faced by many families, and that's why she was going to make it a point to help parents get the information and support they needed to help their families get healthy.

It was a wildly ambitious project that included overhauling school lunch programs and making healthier food more widely available to everyone — not just those that were fortunate enough to live near a farmer's market. She was also going to be recruiting athletes from a variety of professional sports to help show kids that exercise could be fun.

Three years into the project, she spoke with The Nation's Health to report that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had found that obesity rates were falling, that more big box stores were carrying healthier, fresher foods, restaurants were taking a good look at how they could make kids' meals better, and communities were starting their own health-centric organizations that ran events like cooking classes. Five years in, The Washington Post reported that although her ties to corporations also promoting a healthy lifestyle had been controversial according to some, she and her staff were still hopeful that they would make lasting changes.

Her controversial school lunch program

When Michelle Obama sat down to chat with Oprah after becoming First Lady, she shared that one of her passions was health. Not only had she seen the difference eating healthy had made in her own family, but she now had the platform to try to do something about the accessibility of healthy foods — and, ultimately, childhood obesity — on a national scale.

In 2010, the Obama administration passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which had a few parts. The idea was that the nutritional value of the foods kids were offered while in school — from lunches to vending machines — was going to be overhauled, with an eye toward supplying more fresh, local foods and improving the quality of food offered to lower-income and at-risk students. Michelle Obama had been a vocal supporter of the act, and while it might seem like a great idea, it ended up being better on paper than in practice.

By 2013, CBS reported that not only had the program not gotten the school participation they'd expected, but there was a slew of problems: Kids didn't like the food, and food waste skyrocketed. By 2017, CNN was reporting that major organizations like the School Nutrition Association had enough of the plan, in spite of research suggesting that it had worked ... sort of, in some places.

Her 2010 solo trip to Mexico

When Michelle Obama headed out on her first solo international trip as First Lady, it was a huge deal. According to Darrell M. West, Brookings' Douglas Dillion Chair in Governmental Studies, it was a bigger deal than most might think. Obama would be meeting with officials and representatives who would use her words and reactions to gauge what kind of relationship was going to unfold between the Obama administration and foreign governments.

According to The Washington Post, the Obama administration made it clear that her focus was going to be on encouraging the nation's youth to get involved in their country and reinforcing the idea that education was key to securing their future. That was a huge deal, too.

Sociologist Enrique Gonzalez Casanova explained to The New York Times that many children in Mexico saw a life ahead of them that had little in the way of hope or opportunities — in the three years prior to Obama's visit, around 23,000 young people had been killed in conflicts stemming from the drug trade. However, as The Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, Obama's talks to young people from elementary school through college had the potential to change lives — especially considering she focused on sharing her own experiences of coming from a working-class background and showing that yes, the future could be a bright one.

Launching the Reach Higher Initiative

Michelle Obama has always made the nation's youth a priority, and in 2014, she spearheaded the launch of the Reach Higher initiative. That — which grew to include other branches, such as Better Make Room — was a series of programs designed to give students what they needed to further their education in whatever way they saw fit, whether that was through attending college, a trade school, or another type of training program. It included things like a push to get more students to talk to school counselors about their post-high-school options, and spreading information about programs, classes, and financial aid.

Information, the saying goes, is power — and the launch of the initiative took massive strides into packaging information on everything from how to find the right college to financial aid in a way that put everything at prospective students' fingertips. When Forbes took a look at the state of the program in 2020, they noted that not only was Obama still involved but it was still going strong and putting out new content for new students. Videos were getting millions of views across multiple social media platforms.

Launching Let Girls Learn

It wasn't that long ago that higher education was off the table for girls, and in 2015, Barack Obama explained changing times pretty simply: "If you want your country to grow and succeed, you have to empower your women." It was with that simple, seemingly straightforward message that Michelle Obama spearheaded the launch of the Let Girls Learn initiative, which was a global movement organized with the help of the Peace Corps, and designed to help establish community programs — from mentoring to aiding in female-run entrepreneurial projects — across the world.

"As I've traveled the world over the past six years, I've seen time and time again how our young people — particularly our girls — are so often pushed to the very bottom of their societies," Obama said. "Everywhere I go, I meet these girls, and they are so fiercely intelligent, and hungry to make something of themselves. ... They're our dreamers and our visionaries who could change the world as we know it."

In 2017, Education Week reported that the campaign had already funneled more than $1 billion into educational projects spanning a whopping 50 countries, and in 2020, Obama announced (via Essence) that she was going to be partnering with the U.K. to distribute $200 million to countries where education had been disrupted by conflict.

Publishing her books

There are a lot of famous people who decide to write their memoirs, and the good ones leave readers with a deeper understanding of the person at the very center of it all. When Michelle Obama released her first book in 2018, NPR says that it wasn't just a memoir but a look at how she retained her identity and became a partner in her partnership — instead of simply the former First Lady or "Mrs. Obama." Given Obama's popularity, it also seemed like a given that her book would be a massive bestseller — but according to the BBC, it took only 15 days of November for it to become the year's best-selling book. After five months, it broke the 10-million-copy mark (via the BBC).

Obama waded into everything from her childhood to her marriage — and the ups and downs that went with it. So when she released her second book, "The Light We Carry," it was more about lessons learned and advice that readers might use to help get them through the long, weird days of a post-COVID world. She tweeted that she had developed the book "as a toolbox of sorts. It's a collection of practices and perspectives that I draw on when I need to stay balanced and confident, especially in times of anxiety and stress." Her second book, too, saw widespread success, hitting the bestseller lists for both The New York Times and USA Today (via Michelle Obama Books).