Michelle Obama and Nene Sy

Nene Sy '18 interviews First Lady

I deserve this.

That's what Nene Sy reminded herself as she anxiously waited to meet First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House.

Nene was selected by the Young Women’s Leadership Network to interview the First Lady for the Women in the World Summit, held last week in New York. The First Lady wanted to be interviewed by someone who, like her, was the first in her family to go to college.

That same week, Nene was interviewed by TODAY’s Lester Holt and later spoke with Barbara Walters about the experience.

A senior at the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, Nene will be the first in her family to go to college this fall. The 18-year-old from Harlem, N.Y., chose Gettysburg College.

Index cards in hand, Nene rattled off questions to the First Lady asking her to describe her own educational journey, and for advice to first generation college students.

“I want you to push all the doubt out of your head, first and foremost, because it starts with how confident you feel about yourself. And I want you to know that you can't do this alone, nor should you,” the First Lady told Nene.

Nene pressed for more. The First Lady had struck a chord.

“Was it hard for you to get rid of the doubt?” Nene asked, a question not reflected on the notecards she had prepared.

“You need to turn that doubt into energy,” the First Lady said. “When I think about people who didn’t get opportunities like this, I know it’s my obligation to show up and show up big.”


Watch Nene’s interview with First Lady Michelle Obama.


And showing up big is exactly what Nene has done.

A standout student at the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, a College Bound Initiative in which Gettysburg was the program’s first partner, Nene pushed herself to excel in her academics and extracurricular activities. Her parents, from Mali, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world, would often tell her how fortunate she was to have education accessible to her and that she needed to take full advantage of the opportunities she was offered.

Her father, Mohamadu Sy, a taxi driver, made Nene’s education a priority in their family.

“Education comes first,” Her father told the Daily Beast when describing how Nene couldn’t walk down the street without being stopped by boys.

When it was time to start thinking about college, Nene applied to and visited a number of institutions, but there was something about Gettysburg that struck her.

During a two-day trip to visit Gettysburg she was able to experience the campus first hand. She met students who were “just as excited to learn as she was” and faculty members who Nene was easily able to connect and feel comfortable with.

“I met faculty members who were excited and willing to help me achieve my career goals, who were ready to help me find my path,” Nene said.

She knew she had found her home.

Earlier this year, Nene was accepted to Gettysburg through Early Decision on a full scholarship. She cried when she received her acceptance letter.

“Gettysburg was my first choice,” she said, beaming.

Darryl Jones, Nene’s admissions counselor at Gettysburg says that Nene exemplifies the word “earnest.”

“From the time she began to speak, I knew she would be a quiet but confident force on our campus.  I am really looking forward to seeing her considerable potential turn into powerful leadership at Gettysburg College.”

Nene, whose favorite subjects are math and science, plans to study pre-med and would one day like to work as a surgeon – a dream that was solidified for her through a family tragedy. At age 11, Nene's mother delivered twins prematurely. Both twins eventually died, but Nene says the time she spent in the hospital watching doctors try to save the babies and the compassion the doctors showed her family inspired her to become a surgeon.

Nene is excited that Gettysburg will allow her to view of the world from a new perspective, and experience all different types of backgrounds - cultural and religious – and see them from different points of view.

“I want to take advantage of everything,” she said.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Jamie Yates, director of communications and media relations, 717.337.6801

Posted: Tue, 8 Apr 2014

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