In the final days of the Obama administration, First Lady Michelle Obama has given a tearful last official speech before ending her term in style with a huge White House farewell party.
“Don’t be afraid,” Mrs Obama told a crowd of high school teachers on Saturday, as she prepares to leave the White House before the arrival of incoming president Donald Trump.
The event was in honour of the 2017 School Counsellor of the Year, but it became an emotional valediction.
Mrs Obama said it had been “the greatest honour” of her life to be First Lady, and took several veiled swipes at Mr Trump by saying it was cultural diversity that had made America great.
Tears welled in her eyes when, near the middle of the 15-minute speech, Mrs Obama began to reflect on the past eight years.
“As I end my time in the White House, I can think of no better message to send to our young people, in my last official remarks as First Lady: so to all the young people in this room and those who are watching, know that this country belongs to you,” she said, her voice quavering.
“To all of you, from every background and walk of life, if you or your parents are immigrants, know that you are part of a proud American tradition: the infusion of new cultures, talents and ideas, generation after generation — that has made us the greatest country on earth.
“If your family doesn’t have much money, I want you to remember that in this country plenty of folks, including me and my husband, we started out with very little. But with a lot of hard work and a good education anything is possible, even becoming president. That’s what the American dream is all about,” Mrs Obama said with a smile, to cheers.
The ceremony was part of the First Lady’s ‘Reach Higher’ education program, which aimed to help disadvantaged high school students make it to university. The Obama administration strongly promoted school counsellor programs, citing evidence that students who talk to counsellors were seven times more likely to attend higher education.
As First Lady, Mrs Obama championed education, healthy eating, and military families, often using the White House as the venue to promote these cherished topics.
During last year’s political campaign, she also spoke out forcefully against Mr Trump. While she rarely, if ever, mentioned her husband’s adversary by name, she routinely contradicted his messages of anger and division. Mrs Obama’s final speech was no exception.
“If you are a person of faith, know that religious diversity is a great American tradition, too … And whether you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, these religions are teaching our young people about justice and compassion and honesty.”
Her most emotional moment: when she told the crowd that serving as First Lady had been her “greatest honour”.
“I can think of no better way to end my time as First Lady than celebrating with all you,” she said to the crowd of high school educators, choking back tears.
“So I want to close today by simply saying thank you, thank you for everything you do for our kids and our country. Being your First Lady has been the greatest honour of my life and I hope I’ve made you proud.”
From tears to celebration
Striking a very different tone a few hours later, Michelle and Barack Obama partied at the White House until the early hours with a guest list of musicians, actors and activists.
While President-elect Trump has struggled to find any big-name performers for his January 20 inauguration, the Obama function attracted A-list stars, many of whom were donors and supporters throughout their White House years and two presidential campaigns.
The event on Saturday was private, and in the past the Obamas have picked up the tab for such parties.
Attendees reportedly included Meryl Streep, George and Amal Clooney, Robert De Niro, Beyoncé and Jay Z, David Letterman, Paul McCartney, Samuel L Jackson, Tom Hanks, Jerry Seinfeld, Stevie Wonder and Steven Spielberg.
The presence of so many celebrities may contrast to the turnout for Mr Trump’s inauguration. His team has been trying to line up talent to perform at his inauguration festivities later this month. Performers like Elton John and Garth Brooks have declined.
The Obama party went on until 4am with chicken and waffles served to the early-morning attendees.
While photos from inside the function were restricted, several guests shared images from the White House grounds on social media.
Mr Obama will deliver his final address as President in Chicago on Wednesday.