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Associated Press

MIAMI - There's a growing sense among today's youth that public service "is a little cool," first lady Michelle Obama told Florida students and teachers Thursday. The challenge, she said, is figuring out how to harness that new energy.

"How do we show these young people that service is more than what you do once in a while, or for a year or two after college?" asked Obama, who has made volunteerism and education among her signature issues.

Obama was the keynote speaker at the Florida Campus Compact Awards Gala held at Miami-Dade College, an annual event honoring students and teachers for their commitments to public service and civic leadership.

Obama recalled her own decision to leave a high-paying job at a prestigious Chicago law firm to work with a local nonprofit group.

"My mother thought I'd taken her advice to follow my heart a little too closely," she said, but added that helping young people become involved with their communities was far more rewarding than "sitting behind a big fancy desk."

Obama said that even in these tough economic times, she remains optimistic about the interest in public service. She cited the more than 25,000 people who applied for 4,000 Teach for America positions last year.

"I know that what you're doing isn't easy, especially now. I know that many of you are struggling with budget cuts and layoffs, and you're all struggling in that perfect storm of decreasing donations and increasing demands," she said.

"The only thing I can say is hang in there, don't stop. Keep it going. There are young people who are looking to you for who they can be."

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.

Fast facts

Support for military families

Michelle Obama said during a Thursday afternoon stop at Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle that she'll fight to ensure the concerns of military families are heard in Washington. She spoke to more than 1,100 airmen and their families following an earlier event in Miami. The first lady said she supports education benefits for military spouses and family and medical leave benefits for the families of wounded soldiers. She also met with Army Rangers, explosive ordnance disposal technicians and others who have been deployed many times to Iraq and Afghanistan.