OAKLAND — Believe in yourself, work hard and stick to your friends. Don't let yourself grow lonely, even though you are in a new country. Learn a new language. And, most importantly, don't give up.
That advice was imparted to a small group of immigrant and refugee high school students by none other than Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, who visited Oakland International High School on Wednesday during a visit to the Bay Area.
Bachelet has an impressive resume: Not only was she the first woman elected president of Chile, in 2006, she also is a pediatrician, an epidemiologist and a former health and defense minister. However, as the high school students learned through their online research, the well-dressed woman sitting before them was no ordinary politician.
Like some of the teenagers who attend the small school in North Oakland for recent immigrants, Bachelet has suffered from political upheaval. Her father held a prominent government post under President Salvador Allende, who was killed during a military coup in the 1970s. She and her family were rounded up, interrogated and tortured; her father died in captivity. After years in exile, in Australia and Germany, Bachelet returned to Chile.
"Like you, my parents and my family was tortured and in exile," said Madan Rana, 18, who lived most of his life in a refugee camp in Nepal. "Sometimes I feel hopeless thinking about the future."
Bachelet said she understood his frustrations with learning a new language — later, she joked that when she was little, she didn't know that "G" signified the girls' bathroom at her school — but she assured him that his English would only continue to improve.
"The only thing you cannot do is to stop working with others, to let yourself be lonely, to not maintain relationships with other people like you, because the group will make you strong," she said. "It's good to know you can count on other people."
During the hourlong conversation, the students sought advice for their personal aspirations and reassurance for their struggles. They also had questions about democracy-building and putting an end to civil war and corruption. One young woman asked what it was like to return to Chile after living abroad.
Monica Ankomahene, an 18-year-old from Ghana, wanted to know how to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse; Bachelet suggested she work hard — and consider returning to Ghana to help organize its health system.
"There's a lot to do there," she said, adding, "I'm sure you're going to be a great nurse."
Beatrice Kanwea, 18, noted that Liberia is also led by a woman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. "I have some people in my country who think the war is never going to stop." she said. "What hope would you give to the people of Liberia?"
Bachelet said she didn't have a clear answer — and that if she did, she would have won a Nobel Peace Prize. But, she said, she knew that Sirleaf and others were working to build peace. Bachelet said it was important for the international community to help — and to "never give up."
Carmelita Reyes, principal of Oakland International, said a Latin American studies professor she met this past fall at UC Berkeley called her last week to see if they could bring Bachelet to the school. For an opportunity such as this, she said, state testing and end-of-year projects would have to take a back seat.
Oakland International students represent 30 countries, including Peru and Brazil, Reyes said, but none are Chilean. "We were madly scrambling to teach them about Chile," she said. "When you're from Bhutan or Liberia, Chile's Mars."
Reyes said she knew Bachelet's story would resonate with her students.
"She made me want to become who I want to be," Ankomahene said. "She's a president and a doctor, and she's helping her country. That's what I want to do, help my country get over its diseases."
Mustafa Abdulateef, 18, moved to Oakland from Baghdad in January. He said that Bachelet gave him plenty to think about.
"She has a big mind, and she has a lot of ideas and experience in her life," he said. "She gave me hope about the future."
He then politely excused himself; it was time for a group photo, a memento of the day when a world leader came to them with a much-needed dose of inspiration.