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Three young people on what they learned from Michelle Obama's Toronto talk

Just after Obama spoke at length about the education of girls, racism and sexism, Metro caught up with some of the lucky youth in the audience.

Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks at Ryerson University on Tuesday.

Shree Paradkar / Torstar News Service Order this photo

Former first lady Michelle Obama speaks at Ryerson University on Tuesday.

When Michelle Obama hit the stage Tuesday to empower women and address gender equality, it wasn’t just well-connected Torontonians with deep pockets that got to see the former U.S. first lady.

More than 1,000 people between the ages of 14 and 24 filled the Mattamy Athletic Centre because the Economic Club of Canada and Plan International Canada arranged for the purchase of every ticket — which started at $500 — to provide a free seat for a young person.

Just after Obama spoke at length about the education of girls, racism and sexism, Metro caught up with some of the lucky youth in the audience.

Austin Henderson, 19

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Henderson flew all the way from the Maritimes, where he studies at the University of New Brunswick, just to see Obama’s talk. When he heard he had nabbed a ticket, he “was in awe.” Even after the talk wrapped up, he said “it doesn’t feel real” that he got to attend.

While he was struck by Obama’s message that youth should embrace their story and experiences and be as authentic as possible, he felt her talk also highlighted his responsibility as a man.

“Men dominate all these fields and all these professions and that is not right,” he said. “We really need to share our space.”

Nyagua Chiek, 24

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Obama has been one of Chiek’s “feminist idols” since Barack was elected, when she was in Grade 11. After Tuesday's event, Chiek was re-inspired to pass on the former first lady’s encouragement to “break the cycle of doubt” to the marginalized youth she works with.

“When you grow up without opportunity or things leading you to success, you feel you shouldn’t reach for more and you should be humble and not be outspoken about ambitions,” says Chiek.

“With underprivileged youth, you come across that quite often, but hearing her talk about transforming that culture gives me a second push.”

Aliyah Allen-Valley, 21

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Obama’s message that it is OK to make mistakes touched Allen-Valley. “Sometimes when you look at people in powerful positions," she said, "you feel like they don’t make mistakes and they have a straight path to success.”

Being told that by a woman of colour — and someone who has dealt with gender inequality — made the event even more resonant. “Hearing that you can bounce back is a helpful lesson for my life right now.”

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