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By Julie Funasaki Yuen

Mid-Pacific sophomore Kaiya Leong ’24 never dreamed she would one day meet Michelle Obama, much less have the opportunity to speak with her for nearly two hours. But then, she did.

Leong met and spoke with Mrs. Obama in March 2022, along with other young women, as the Girls Opportunity Alliance led a convening for students supported by girls’ empowerment organizations across Oʻahu. 

According to the website, the Girls Opportunity Alliance is a program of the Obama Foundation that seeks to empower adolescent girls around the world through education, allowing them to achieve their full potential and transform their families, communities, and countries. The program engages people around the world to take action to help adolescent girls and the grassroots leaders working to educate them.

“The girls in the program are so impressive,” shares Leong. “One student spoke about mental health, and how the concept of mental health is changing with our generation. Another girl started her own girls robotics team in the 8th grade. She was passionate about STEM. All of the girls were well-spoken and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to work with them in the future.”

Leong was selected to participate in the Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance after being sponsored by a board member from the Hawaiʻi Arts Alliance. “I participated in a recorded introduction interview and spoke about what it’s like to be a girl in Hawaiʻi. I also spoke about my challenges in overcoming dyslexia and how, with the support of a good team, I built more resilience and learned that dyslexia can be a strength.” 

She also discussed her interests in international affairs, gender equality and climate change.

“I read Malala’s book in 5th grade and I wondered, how is that possible?” says Leong about her experience reading Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai Malik’s influential work, ‘I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.’” 

“I’m very passionate about international affairs, especially since I grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore,” continues Leong. “I’m interested in Asia and I realize that some people don’t realize that not everyone has the right to freedom of speech. I was very fortunate to be educated about things like this.” 

Photo credit: The Obama Foundation. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way, and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement by the Foundation, President Obama, or Mrs. Obama without the Foundation’s prior written consent.

Having the opportunity to meet and speak with the former first lady was overwhelming at first. 

“You really can’t describe her presence – it’s magical,” shares Leong. “And then she even answered my life’s question. ‘How do I create change as a girl regarding gender equality?’ She (Obama) made it clear that you bring your own femininity into a man’s world. She said, ‘if you’re just pretending to be something you’re not, then you’re not creating change.’”

Leong was truly inspired by Obama’s words. 

“She knew how she felt,” says Leong. “She knew what she wanted to say. She expressed herself in a way that we could understand and relate to. She spoke about her own life. She was amazing.”

Leong says that Mrs. Obama also spoke about the importance of taking care of yourself and getting off social media from time-to-time.

Leong’s work with the Hawaiʻi Arts Alliance and the Girls Opportunity Alliance has inspired her desire to continue pursuing the arts. 

“I painted a portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsberg for her (Obama),” says Leong. “I’m currently in the Mid-Pacific School of the Arts Dance Certificate program and next year I’m going to pursue the Arts Certificate.” 

“The whole experience makes me want to do more,” she continues. “The Girls Opportunity Alliance really influenced my choice to sign up to take IB Global Politics at Mid-Pacific. When you’re younger, you think the world is perfect. And then when you grow older, you realize that there’s so many issues to be resolved. And then you realize, ‘I have to make more change.’”

In 10th grade, Kaiya Leong ’24 is already a change-maker. And the best is yet to come.