Thank goodness for Michelle Obama! Recent studies of UK youngsters have shown figures such as Victoria Beckham and Jordan to be major ‘role models’ for young students, with fame and fortune listed as major ambitions ahead of academic attainment or career success. In this Facebook era of Playstations and mobile phones, it is often film and pop stars like Robert Pattinson and Miley Cyrus who teens look up to and aspire to emulate, whilst studies show that few have a comparable awareness of successful academics, politicians or business leaders.

Enter Michelle Obama. The First Lady spent time last week with a group of underachieving pupils from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington as part of her visit to Britain. In this time of raised tuition fees and reduced government support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it has never been more important for young people from these areas to be inspired and supported to realise their academic potential. Mrs. Obama offered the children a role model, explaining that she too had come from a background where few students went on into higher education, and described other peoples’ doubts about whether “someone with my background could succeed at an elite university”.

The pupils were specially selected students who showed promise and were interested in pursuing the sciences, but were not achieving as highly as hoped at school. Michelle urged them to follow their dreams, declaring that true success was nothing to do with your background, but with “confidence” and “the effort you are willing to invest”. One young teenager described Michelle as “inspirational” and indicated that she was now seriously considering applying to university as a direct result of the talk.

Tuition Fees Fears

As protesters to the government’s new tuition fees plan fear that numbers of UK University students from poorer backgrounds will plummet when fees rise to £9000 per term in 2012, it is vital that messages like these are conveyed to young people in Britain. But whilst the UK’s top universities pump millions of pounds into access schemes that seem to have little impact, one wonders why it takes an American role model to inspire our students. Where are the British politicians, scientists, theologians, pioneers, writers and sportspeople who could be stepping forward to help light fires of ambition in our young people? And could the government be doing more to help?

Finding Inspiration Closer to Home

A recent survey by the University of Derby also suggests that celebrity role models may not be exclusively responsible for shaping children’s dreams and aspirations. Research by Simon Brownhill, senior education lecturer, suggests that “friends, family and teachers” are just as important as figures to look up to. So perhaps now more than ever, it is important for parents to be helping their children to reach higher, to consider all planes of adult life and all diverse career paths, in order to help them become aware that life can hold more in store than twilight movies and crowds of screaming fans.

Who inspires you to study hard and reach for your dreams? Is Michelle Obama more inspiring than British role models? Let us know your thoughts below!