By Laura Wides-Munoz
MIAMI — There's a growing sense among today's youth that public service "is a little cool," first lady Michelle Obama told Florida students and teachers Thursday. The challenge, she said, is figuring out how to harness that new energy.
"How do we show these young people that service is more than what you do once in a while, or for a year or two after college?" asked the first lady, who has made volunteerism and education among her signature issues.
Obama was the keynote speaker at the Florida Campus Compact Awards Gala held at Miami-Dade College, an annual event honoring students and teachers from across the state for their commitments to public service and civic leadership.
Obama recalled her own decision to leave a high-paying job at a prestigious Chicago law firm to work with a local nonprofit.
"My mother thought I'd taken her advice to follow my heart a little too closely," she said, but added that helping young people become involved with their communities was far more rewarding than "sitting behind a big fancy desk."
Obama said that even in these tough economic times, she remains optimistic about the interest in public service. She cited the more than 25,000 people who applied for 4,000 Teach for America positions last year. She also highlighted her husband's work to boost public-private partnerships and a coordinated effort among television networks to air service-themed programs.
"I know that what you're doing isn't easy, especially now. I know that many of you are struggling with budget cuts and layoffs, and you're all struggling in that perfect storm of decreasing donations and increasing demands," she said.
"The only thing I can say is hang in there, don't stop. Keep it going. There are young people who are looking to you for who they can be," she said.
Thursday's luncheon was held at the Freedom Tower in the heart of downtown. The national historic landmark, now part of the college, was used in the 1960s by immigration officials to process thousands of refugees fleeing the Cuban revolution.
The first lady planned to travel north to Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle to meet with military families later in the afternoon.