With Silicon Valley the preferred destination for many Stanford graduates, some students ignore governmental work as a viable career choice. At this year’s St. Clair Drake Memorial Lecture, held Thursday at Memorial Auditorium, Valerie Jarrett ’78, a senior advisor to President Obama, encouraged Stanford students to look beyond the private sector and get involved with public service and leadership.
“My worst day in the public sector — and I’ve had some really bad days — was better than my best day in the private sector,” she said.
Jarrett is one of the president’s longest-serving advisors, having known Obama since 1991, when she hired Michelle Obama — then Barack’s fiancée — to work in Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s office. In addition to her role as an advisor, Jarrett has two other titles — Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison, and Chairperson of the White House Commission on Women and Girls.
While some were expecting a policy talk, Jarrett instead delivered a highly personal account of her own life.
Jarrett began by describing her childhood and the path that led her to Stanford. She was born in Iran and moved to Chicago at age 5. She told the audience the story of her father, who was the first black resident in a Chicago hospital and who moved to Iran to practice medicine rather than accepting pay significantly lower than that of his white peers.
“I wanted to see how that experience [of being born in Iran] fit into what she’s done,” said Anna Schickele ’13. “It was interesting to hear her life story.”
After graduating from Stanford in 1978 with a degree in psychology, Jarrett attended law school at the University of Michigan and then was hired by a private law firm in Chicago.
“I took the path of least resistance,” she said. “I’m not proud of it, but that’s what I did.”
Dissatisfied and “miserable” at her law firm, Jarrett chose to enter public service, working in the Chicago mayor’s office until 2005 and then serving as CEO of the Habitat Company before joining Barack Obama’s administration in 2008. She described some of the lessons she learned working under Daley.
“Find the place where people appreciate your choices, your gratification beyond your job,” she said. “If you don’t, you’ll be miserable.”
Jarrett ended her talk describing her experience working in Barack Obama’s administration.
“It’s been an extraordinary last 14 months,” she said. “We’ve made an enormous difference in one year and we still have an enormous, long journey to go.”
In many ways, Jarrett’s speech served to encourage Stanford students to get involved with public service. She spoke at length about engaging with the local community and with the government at the local, state and federal level, and discussed her own experience tutoring autistic students during her time at Stanford.
“Ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” she said. “You are extraordinary people, so just imagine what you can do, and go out there and do it.”
Jarrett answered more specific questions about policy and governing in a session with Profs. Harry and Michele Elam after her speech. Michele serves as the director of African and African American Studies, the department that hosted the event.
“The appropriate role of government is to do what the private sector cannot do…it must provide the safety net necessary for the private sector to thrive,” Jarrett said.
After the presentation, students had positive reactions to Jarrett’s message.
“The fact that she took the time out of her schedule to come here and talk to us was great,” said Kelsei Wharton ’12. “It certainly met my expectations…she talked about leadership and her experiences, instead of delivering a policy paper.”
“I didn’t really have any expectations,” added Taryn Sanks ’13. “I liked that it was personal.”
Though Jarrett’s talk was generally seen as quite strong, some students felt there were a few missing elements.
“One question I would have liked to ask her was what she would have done differently,” said Camira Powell ’13. “I wanted to know how what she learned here has affected the rest of her life.”
“Maybe she could have given a shout-out to whatever dorm she lived in,” Schickele added.