Roberts tells PEOPLE she's “thankful” that Obama is charging ahead on girls’ education rather than shrinking from the world stage

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
December 09, 2019 03:15 PM
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In a quiet, quavering voice, Tay Thi Nguyen told the powerful women seated on either side of her about her painful school days in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta: At age 7, as she worked the fields after school alongside her illiterate day-laborer parents, she hatched a plan to go to college and become a teacher. But in the seventh grade, her parents burned her schoolbooks and insisted she drop out to work full-time and help support her six siblings.

Through a program called Room to Read, however, she learned to stand up to her parents — and to stand up for her dreams.

“They helped me not only in financial support, but in spiritual support,” said Tay Thi, 28, now a teacher at the school in her hometown. “Finally, my mom understood me and loved me more.”

To her left, Michelle Obama blinked away tears and held Tay Thi’s hand. “Did your mother live to see you accomplish your dreams?” she asked. Tay Thi nodded.

To her right, Julia Roberts was awestruck. The actress, who accompanied the former first lady on Monday to the Cần Giuộc High School an hour’s drive outside of Ho Chi Minh City, had heard Tay Thi’s story one-on-one earlier in the day.

“I did my tears this morning,” Roberts said to the half-dozen alumnae of Room to Read’s Cần Giuộc program who gathered to share their stories with the VIP visitors — who also included the Todayshow’s Jenna Bush Hager, YouTuber Liza Koshy and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before star Lana Condor

“I’m just in complete awe of you,” Roberts told Tay Thi, placing her hand on the young woman’s arm. “At 7 years old, to know there’s something more for me and I’m going to have to make it happen for myself — I mean, at 7 years old, I was just thinking about Archie Comics and maybe some cotton candy!”

Julia Roberts (left) with Tay Thi Nguyen in Long An Province, Vietnam, on Monday.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama (center), Julia Roberts (second from left, back) and Lana Condor (bottom right, in white) listen to female students at Cần Giuộc High School in Long An province, Vietnam on Monday.
| Credit: Hau Dinh/AP/Shutterstock

Roberts, 52, later told PEOPLE she was forever moved by Tay Thi’s “humanity and will.”

“It’s such a beautiful thing: She just never gave up. I will never recover from that story, really.”

Roberts explained that, while she hadn’t before worked on the issues surrounding girls’ education, she jumped at Obama’s invitation to get involved with her Global Girls Alliance at The Obama Foundation — and make this 9,000-mile trip to Vietnam.

“The best things you don’t stop and think about, right? You just go and do because you know in your heart it’s the right thing,” Roberts said in an interview in one of the school’s sweltering classrooms.

Along with the former first lady, 55, Hager, and the others, Roberts spent several hours with the students and alumnae learning about the barriers to girls’ education here — family pressure to earn money, cultural pressure to marry young — and the training that the San Francisco-based Room to Read gives for overcoming those same obstacles.

Julia Roberts (left) with former First Lady Michelle Obama in Long An Province, Vietnam, on Monday.

As part of a self-esteem lesson, Roberts and Obama gamely (and with a few laughs) drew pictures of themselves with crayons and Magic Markers.

Roberts jokingly fussed over what her drawn self should wear and, when time was up, cracked, “But I didn’t finish my hair!”

Obama, meanwhile, meticulously drew the natural curls she’s been sporting since she left the White House in 2017 and then sheepishly acknowledged she didn’t draw herself any arms.

“I love this class!” gushed Roberts, to which Obama replied, “I need this class every day!”

Another of the Room to Read life-skills lessons had the students work with their celebrity visitors on scripting conversations a girl could have with parents resisting her career choice. The third lesson focused on how the girls should present themselves when asking for scholarships. “I like how you made eye contact with everyone at the table,” Obama told one of the girls presenting.

Julia Roberts
Former First Lady Michelle Obama
| Credit: The Obama Foundation

Roberts told PEOPLE she was “thankful” that Obama, out of the White House but hardly in retirement, was charging ahead on girls’ education rather than shrinking from the world stage. “I never thought she’d ever shrink into the background,” said Roberts.

According to UNESCO, an arm of the United Nations, 98 million of the world’s adolescent girls are not in school.

The duo’s Vietnam trip this week is meant to draw the spotlight to programs such as Room to Read and crowdfunding by Obama’s Girls Opportunity Alliance to expand such grassroots work on getting girls to school and keeping them there. (Obama herself donated more than $500,000 — the proceeds from merchandise sales on her 2018-2019 book tour — to girls’ education earlier this month.)

“What people everywhere need to know is that knowledge is the true power. It’s the only thing that’s going to save us,” Roberts said. “It’s impossible to ignore that if women are 52 percent of the world’s population. How do we think we can get along with less than half of the knowledge we might need to carry on on this planet? So to invest in the education of girls is to invest in ourselves.”