WASHINGTON — First Lady Michelle Obama and a handful of powerful US women fanned out across Washington on Wednesday to inspire and mentor young students.
"Success is you following your dream," said actress Hilary Swank, who told a bewildered audience of three dozen African American high school students in a disadvantaged neighborhood that she had grown up in a trailer park before becoming a two-time Academy Award winner.
Other celebrities -- ambassadors, businesswomen and artists -- also recounted their own path to success at six local high schools at the invitation of Obama, who organized the event to honor International Women's Day.
The first lady, who has promoted youth mentoring initiatives, later hosted the guest mentors and 120 students for a dinner event in the White House East Room.
"I wouldn't be here today, and neither would my husband, if we didn't have people in our lives who stepped off of their track to enter our lives and our worlds and help us figure out the path for getting where we needed to be," Obama told students at Ballou High School, another inner-city school.
"You know, Barack and I were not born with silver spoons in our mouths and connections and money and resources," added the first lady, who grew up in Chicago's infamous South Side, which has long had a reputation as an impoverished and crime-infested neighborhood.
Swank, who won an Oscar for her lead role in "Million Dollar Baby," told the students she had had many disappointments in her life, including scuttled auditions.
"It's important to define yourself, look in yourself who you want be," said the 37-year-old actress, who won her first Oscar for her performance as Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry."
She shared her role as mentor at Eastern High School, in northeastern Washington, with Olympic Gold medalist and former WNBA professional basketball player Lisa Leslie, Grammy Award winning violinist Miri Ben-Ari and comedian Anna Deveare Smith.
"Set your mind on something. Don't expect magic, it probably won't happen," advised Israeli-born Ben-Ari, a pioneer of violin and hip-hop.
Students responded positively.
"It gives motivation to pursue my career and my goals," said Leche Boone, 18.
Leslie, a towering figure at six feet, five inches (1.96 meters), urged the students to "learn to love yourself and keep on trying," remembering she had a tough going in childhood when she already wore size 12 (44 in Europe) shoes at the age of 12.
Among the other participating mentors were award-winning US figure skater Michelle Kwan, ex-astronaut and engineer Ellen Ochoa, Brigadier General Dana Born -- dean of the faculty at the US Air Force Academy -- former US ambassador to Hungary Nancy Brinker and A&E Television Networks president and CEO Abbe Raven.
"I liked Hilary (Swank), she believes in herself," 17-year-old student Shavona Hill whispered.
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