During a March 2015 visit to Cambodia, first lady Michelle Obama urged female students to finish their education and become role models in their communities.

She counseled them to discount any philosophical opposition to educating girls that they might encounter. “It happened to me when I was your age,” she said. “There were people who told me that I wasn’t smart enough to go to college and go to law school, but I ignored them.”

While the purpose for her visit was to offer help in the form of a new U.S. initiative, the first lady told the students, “It’s going to be up to you all to help make the argument that investing in you is the best thing that your families can do for you and for their communities.”

Cambodian students holding flags (© AP Images)
Cambodian students line up to greet the first lady. (© AP Images)

The Let Girls Learn initiative seeks to reduce economic and cultural barriers — such as gender-based violence or living far from school — that keep millions of adolescent girls from getting an education. As part of the initiative, the State Department is working in several countries — including Malawi and Tanzania — to empower adolescent girls and ensure they’re able to attend school.

At a secondary school outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia, Obama met several students enrolled in a scholarship program that covers boarding and education costs for girls living in remote areas. The program is the type of effort the Peace Corps is likely to encourage. Often, girls who live far from school quit because of transportation costs or dangerous commutes.

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Local empowerment

In areas like Siem Reap, a majority of households are headed by farmers who struggle to afford their children’s educational expenses. There is economic pressure on students to drop out, often before secondary school, and find seasonal work to earn extra income. In fact, across Cambodia, school enrollment among girls drops 61 percent after primary school.

Michelle Obama greeting young person (© AP Images)
The first lady greets Peace Corps volunteers in Cambodia. (© AP Images)

But the first lady hopes that U.S. attention to the challenges faced by girls will encourage individuals such as Duth Kimsru, a past participant in the State Department’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative who is working to help students stay in school.

Kimsru and her colleagues run a scholarship program that relieves families of educational costs.

Through a nonprofit, PEPY Empowering Youth, Kimsru helps at-risk teens move from secondary school into college. Scholarship benefits include a bicycle, access to a computer, a living allowance and health care. In return, students agree to start a service project in their communities.

How to let girls learn

Over the next six years, 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers will support hundreds of community projects to invest in girls by keeping them in school. To achieve this goal, the Peace Corps is focused on three main tasks:

  1. Train Peace Corps volunteers and local leaders on gender awareness issues.
  2. Facilitate technology camps and open libraries that will be accessible to girls.
  3. Expand the number of Peace Corps volunteers working to advance girls’ education.

“The reason why leaders around the country are going to band together to support girls’ education is because we need you to be the leaders of tomorrow,” Obama said to the Cambodian students.