'The whole thing was like so unreal': Former President Obama surprises writing students on Zoom

For an hour, the former president gave them advice on writing, life and how to be leaders.


A group of Maine high schoolers had the Zoom of a lifetime recently.

Teens who are a part of the Portland-based Young Writers and Leaders (YWL) program got to talk with a best-selling author, President Barack Obama.

Back in December President Obama sent a copy of his new memoir, A Promised Land, to the 26 Maine high schoolers who make up the YWL program, and later followed up with a letter, asking they could spare some time from their busy lives and join him on a Zoom call to talk about their lives as writers and leaders.

“The whole thing was like so unreal. But it actually happened, and we have, like, we have video proof that it happened,” said Noor Sager, a 15-year-old sophomore at Gorham High School.

During Obama’s presidency, the White House actually named the YWL program as one of the top 12 arts and humanities programs for youth in the nation.

“We started by asking him questions,” said Alia Usanase, a 19-year-old junior at Deering High School.

In a video of the interaction, Usanase asked President Obama if he always likes everything he writes.

“No! Sometimes I write, most of the time I write something, I say ‘this is stupid,'” Obama told her.

For an hour, the former president gave them advice on writing, life and how to be leaders.

“You need to like change your community first in order to change the world,” said Youmna Mohamed, a 17-year-old senior at Portland High School, expressing one of her key takeaways from the conversation.

“My whole life, I hadn’t imagined myself talking to a president. President Obama in front of me, like I am literally talking to him,” Usanase said, still in disbelief.

“Honestly at the end of that call I couldn't help but feel like, a really lasting impression that, like, maybe like the really impossible stuff that everyone thinks about isn’t that impossible,” Sager said.

To learn more about Young Writers and Leaders, a program put on by The Telling Room, head to