On a trip this week to Southeast Asia, to support girls' education, the former first lady was struck by the story of one teenage student

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
December 11, 2019 09:14 AM
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Truong Thi Hai Yên, barefoot on the cleanly swept floor of her rented one-room home, rattles off the tick-tock of an average school day for her, an 11th-grader in southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta: At 6:30 a.m., she sets out the produce that her single mom sells from the sidewalk and then she pedals an old family bicycle to Cần Giuộc High School, a 45-minute journey if she times the river ferry just right.

A smiley teen who plans a money-making career in real estate, Yên makes this trip at least four times each day, using her two breaks between lessons to return home and help with the store and cook dinner.

It’s no hardship, Yên insists with a shrug. “It’s just normal to me. There’s only me here to support my mom.”

When Michelle Obama says, “There are millions of girls like me all over the world” — young women beating the odds in a world where, according to the United Nations’ UNESCO, 98 million adolescent girls are not in school — Yên, 16, is one of them.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama hugs Truong Thi Hai Yên during a Monday visit in Vietnam
Chuck Kennedy/The Obama Foundation
Julia Roberts (left) and Michelle Obama in Vietnam

‘I was you — just like you’

At Yên’s age, Obama was riding 90 minutes one-way on two city buses just to get to a public magnet high school better than what her working-class South Side Chicago neighborhood offered.

“I was you — just like you,” Obama, 55, told Yên and her classmates on Monday when the former first lady, accompanied by Julia Roberts, Today’s Jenna Bush Hager, YouTube’s Liza Koshy and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before star Lana Condor, visited Cần Giuộc, an hour’s drive outside Ho Chi Minh City.

With none of the rope lines, brisk pace or air-conditioning of White House travel, Obama spent several hours in sweltering classrooms with students and alumnae of a project called Room to Read.

Supported by The Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance, Room to Read teaches at-risk girls in Vietnam and 15 other countries strategies for surmounting family, financial and cultural pressures to drop school in favor of full-time labor or early marriage.

• For more on former First Lady’s Michelle Obama trip to Vietnam, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

Truong Thi Hai Yên speaks to former First Lady Michelle Obama (fourth from left) and others
Chuck Kennedy/The Obama Foundation

Impossible choices

Yên has known all of these barriers. When she was in the sixth grade, her parents (who have since divorced) wanted their older daughter Nhu to quit high school and start earning money to help support the struggling family of five. (Yên also has an older brother, who is married.)

Yên, hating to see her sister, then in 12th grade, drop out so close to graduation, offered to work full-time herself. “Whatever I can do to support my mother,” she says, through a translator, of those fraught days six years ago.

In an interview over generously filled bowls of sour cherries taken from the day’s inventory, Yên’s mother, Ha, looks pained to remember the choices she forced upon her daughters.

“Life is so difficult,” says Ha, who grew up in a poor farming family in central Vietnam and dropped out of school in grade five. “I would prepare meals for my mom and dad, feed the pigs and chickens,” she says, her eyes growing moist.

“I was an excellent student and when I dropped out, my teacher went straight to my parents to have me come back, but my mom said we couldn’t afford that,” Ha remembers. “I would see my friend going to school every day and I was crying a lot.”

She married at 20 — “too young,” she says now.

Truong Thi Hai Yên at her home
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall

Breaking the cycle

Years later, when it came to asking the same of her daughter, Room to Read stepped in, much like Ha’s fifth-grade teacher tried to. The San Francisco-based program had just entered Cần Giuộc and provided the family financial help with Yên and Nhu’s school fees (tuition, uniforms and supplies can top $800 per year) and also life-skills classes that taught the girls how to stand up for their educational dreams, save money and apply for scholarships.

Yên applied new problem-solving to besting the competition from other vegetable stalls on her street. “I now have a strategy for the buyer,” she says with a grin. “I give discounts and throw in small stuff — like a few onions — for free.”

With the budgeting tips from Room to Read, Yên also saved two months for a secondhand guitar and taught herself to play. Asked what she now enjoys in her few hours outside of studying (exams are in two weeks), she replies, “I like to help my mom and play guitar. That’s all.”

She has her eye on college and aims to apply her competitive spirit in the real-estate industry. “I can earn a lot of money,” she predicts. “I feel safer when I have money.”

Truong Thi Hai Yên at home
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall

Changing mom’s mind

The Room to Read lessons that Yên gets at Cần Giuộc High School have come home with her across the river.

Divorced and still struggling, Ha has come to see that education is the key to making her small family’s life better.

“Without education, I can only work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. — Monday through Sunday without holidays, whole week, whole month, whole year — and it’s still not enough,” she says. “I used to have the idea that I need Yên out of school to help. But now I only want to see her finish her school so that she can change her life and, in the future, support her family back.”

A powerful role model

When Yên came home recently with the news that Obama would be visiting her school, “my mother doesn’t believe me,” Yên reports with a laugh. “I was so surprised that a very important person like this would come to this small town, and my teacher explained that Ms. Obama cares about education for girls.”

In fact, Obama calls it “my life’s work now … to keep traveling the world to show what happens when we give a girl an education.” Her trip to Asia (she and Roberts were continuing on to Malaysia for a Dec. 12 joint appearance there) is meant to draw the spotlight to programs such as Room to Read and the 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, 52, tells PEOPLE. “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.”

Michelle Obama (center) during her visit with Vietnamese students this week
STR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Truong Thi Hai Yên (right) at her home
Sandra Sobieraj Westfall

Back at Yên’s home, where there is no TV or computer for screening American movies, neither she nor her mother can quite place Roberts’ name (“Was she in Batman?” asks Yên) and they talk about Obama as if her husband is still the U.S. president. But both mother and daughter recognize the importance of such influential women fighting for girls’ education.

“I feel so grateful for Ms. Obama,” Ha says.

On the day of the former first lady’s visit, Yên and her classmates wore their traditional Vietnamese long dress uniforms. Obama, Roberts, Hager and Koshy sat with the girls and participated in their Room to Read life-skills lessons on self-esteem, having difficult conversations with parents and putting their best foot forward when applying for scholarships.

When it was Yên’s turn to make a presentation to Obama, the girl who once offered to throw away her future to save her sister’s threw back her shoulders, stood with perfect posture and spoke aloud her plan for college.

“I will definitely work hard,” she promised Obama, “and earn your confidence.”