Student Stories

A Return to Home: Valerie Jarrett Headlines Class Day

When Valerie Jarrett served as a senior advisor during the Obama presidency, she was sometimes referred to as the President’s “first friend”— a testament to the importance of her role in the White House and to her friendship with both Barack and Michelle Obama.

The longest-serving senior adviser to President Obama, Jarrett oversaw the White House Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. She also chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls and co-chaired the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.

Before joining the Obama administration, Jarrett was the CEO of The Habitat Company, a real estate development and management company. She also served under Chicago Mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley and has held numerous board positions, including vice chairman of the University of Chicago’s Board of Trustees.

Jarrett now serves as a distinguished senior fellow at the University of Chicago Law School.

Despite her high profile on the national stage, Jarrett hasn’t forgotten where she got her political start— right here in Chicago. 

On Friday at 2 p.m., Jarrett will serve as the keynote speaker for UChicago’s Class Day, a celebration that kicks off Convocation Weekend. In advance of her speech, Jamie Ehrlich, managing media editor, had a chance to speak with her about being a global citizen, Chicago politics and her relationship with former President Barack Obama. 

Jamie Ehrlich: Thank you so much for chatting with us. How are you feeling about Class Day?

Valerie Jarrett: I feel very grateful and nostalgic ahead of Class Day. The University of Chicago has been an immensely important part of my life as well as the lives of my parents and daughter. 

JE: What is something you wished you knew in college?

VJ: In college, I thought I could plan and control what happened in my life. Often, we can only control how we respond to the unexpected twists and turns -- and that is part of the adventure of life.

JE: You got your start in politics here in Chicago, in the Mayor’s office. What do you think makes Chicago politics unique from any other city?

VJ: One of Chicago’s many strengths is the extraordinary level of civic engagement. Individuals as well as businesses, are all committed to making our city better.

JE: The Mayor’s office is also where you first met Michelle Obama, who was then engaged to President Obama. Did you suspect that they would rise to notoriety when you first met them?

VJ: I met the Obama’s in 1991, a year prior to their marriage. I was very impressed by their intellect as well as their core values, integrity and character. I could not have predicted their paths would have led to the White House, but I knew how seriously they both took their commitment to a life of service. 

JE: There are many students graduating that are hoping to someday make a difference in this world. If they want to make the biggest impact, what advice would you give them?

VJ: My piece of advice is to believe in your own empowerment. Commit to what you feel passionately about. Find your voice and use it to be a force for good. Take the long view and do not be distracted by nonsense. All change is hard because there are always people invested in the status quo, so be resilient and expect that even if you fail, you are not a failure. Simply learn and try again.

JE: What does it mean to be a good global citizen?

VJ: Being a good global citizen requires us to recognize that we all have a responsibility to make the world a better place through acts large and small. Do your part with the enormous privileges you have been given.

JE: Politics today are discouraging, to say the least. How can young people stay motivated?

VJ: Recognize that change takes time. This is a marathon we run, not a sprint. Combine the fierce urgency of now, with determination and patience, to not give up!
Class Day will be held Friday, June 8, 2018 from 2 to 4 p.m. on the Main Quadrangles. The celebration is open to family and guests of graduating students as well as the larger UChicago community. For more information on Convocation weekend, visit