Trecya Jordan recently enjoyed what she can only call the job interview of her life.

Sitting between First Lady Michelle Obama and Howard County General Hospital (HCGH) President Steven Snelgrove, Jordan shared how she decided to enroll in Howard Community College (HCC). “I knew HCC has a really good nursing program,” Jordan said. “I know it’s competitive with any four-year school. I know that, after I leave here, I’ll have a job. I’ll be making $50,000 a year when I get out of school, and I can help my parents pay back my tuition.”

Jordan, who eventually wants to pursue more education and become a nurse anesthetist at Howard County General,” joined Obama, Snelgrove and HCC President Kate Hetherington as part of a panel of speakers talking to high school and college students about their futures.

Obama, who stayed away from political topics, was visiting HCC to encourage students by sharing her advice, as a First Lady and as a mother.

“We are talking about college choices in my household every night,” she said. “If you have an opportunity to visit colleges, then go to the campuses and sit in on some of the courses. Talk to professors, talk to alumni, talk to students. Ask yourself, ‘What’s it like to be in this community?’”

Financially Feasible

Obama visited HCC on Sept. 17 as part of her Reach Higher initiative, an effort to inspire every student in America to take charge of his or her future by completing his or her education past high school, whether at a professional training program, at a community college or at a four-year college or university.

The First Lady toured some of HCC’s career and technical training programs, then participated in a panel hosted by Essence magazine, which was kicking off its second annual college tour.

The panel agreed that, for many high school graduates, attending a community college is a financially viable option.

“You can get a quality education at a community college for an affordable price,” said Hetherington, herself a community college graduate.

Obama urged high school students to consider attending community college as one of their many choices for pursuing further education. “There are thousands of choices out there,” she said. “A lot of times, high school seniors think, ‘There’s the one school I have to go to. If I don’t get in, my life is over.’ But we live in a country where there are so many options for a great education.”

‘Great Employees’

Snelgrove took an opportunity to share with students the qualities HCGH looks for in its employees.

“We look at their ability to demonstrate perseverance,” he said. “If they have character, if they demonstrate compassion and integrity to the patients and families they serve, then the sky’s the limit,” he said. “It’s up to you. We help you along the way. We give you the challenge to demonstrate you can be great employees.”

As students consider the education they will need to become great employees, Obama said it’s important for them to research the kinds of schools they want to attend. “Then, in the end, it’s going to be a gut decision. And you’ll be fine. You’re going to be O.K. You have to know your deadlines.”

Have a plan, Obama urged the young people. “The president and I are still planning. We have to figure out what we’re going to do with our lives now that we’re almost done. We have to find a place to live. We can’t just walk out of the White House with no plan,” she said, drawing some laughs.

What Colleges Want

Students openly shared their anxieties about life after high school: What if they have a low GPA or low test scores? “Community colleges have open admissions, so GPA and your SAT scores will not come into play,” said Hetherington.

Obama said she believed colleges are moving toward considering every facet of students, not just their GPAs and test scores. “Colleges are looking for your authentic story,” she said. “They are looking to diversify their populations. So don’t downplay the parts of you that make you unique.”

She also commended HCC and other community colleges for working closely with employers. “For those students who think school is not for them, community college [offers] a way to train for a job that actually exists. You do internships and make connections. Why would you not explore this as an option?

She urged the high school and college students to think of themselves as good examples for the next generation. “Be that role model for them,” she said. “That’s how we’re going to get back to No. 1 in the world in education.”

Jordan added her own advice.

“Don’t stop” going to school, she said. “Once you stop, it’s harder for you to start back.”