Senior Day Speaker, 1981 grad Valerie Jarrett Has Advice for Next Generation of Leaders

Valerie Jarrett, '81

By Jared Wadley, University of Michigan News Service

Senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, '81, took a break May 8 from advising President Barack Obama to dispense a few pearls to 310 graduating Michigan Law students instead.

"Please savor the pride and satisfaction in the challenges you've met, and the obstacles you've overcome,"Jarrett told graduates and their families at Hill Auditorium. "Let your much-deserved self-confidence carry you forward to the next phase of your life, because you will need that confidence, and it will be tested time and time again."

Jarrett talked about her career and time at the Law School in a speech delivered one week after her boss gave the spring commencement address at Michigan Stadium. 

As a senior advisor to the president, Jarrett heads four White House departments: intergovernmental affairs; urban affairs; public engagement; and Olympic, Paralympic, and youth sports. Also, she serves as the Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

Jarrett described four requirements for effective leadership: passion, character, resilience and courage. Graduates should care deeply about what they do, or "they will not have the endurance to sustain their effort or achieve their goals," she said.

"Resist the complacency that you will find rooted in your comfort zone and constantly challenge yourself," she said. "That's what fuels passion."

To pursue that passion, a person needs courage to trust his or her moral compass and to make tough decisions.

"The more people you inspire with your leadership, the harder it is to reach consensus, and therefore the more dissension," Jarrett said.

Effective leadership also involves resilience when failure occurs.

"Learn from your mistakes, but do not quit. And certainly do not fear trying," she said.

As it relates to character, Jarrett said she's

seen the aspirations and hopes of many people dashed by lapses in judgment decades earlier.

"Your reputation is your most important asset …. (and) is inextricably linked to the company you keep," she said, adding that graduates should affiliate themselves with good people and worthy institutions that have solid reputations and shared values.

Before attending the commencement ceremony, Jarrett visited with student groups and faculty members. She talked about public service and answered questions from members of the student-run Frank Murphy Society.

"She came across as both down-to-earth and funny, and the entire group benefited from hearing about her varied and successful career in public service," said Zach Dembo, a 1L from Lexington, Ky. Dembo is one of the founders of the society named after Michigan Law alum Frank Murphy, '14, who went on to a distinguished career in public service as Detroit's mayor, Michigan's governor, the U.S. Attorney General, and as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Emily Boening, a second-year law student from Toledo, worked in Washington D.C. before coming to law school. She said her "jaded attitude" toward politics and political speakers sometimes got the best of her—until she met Jarrett.

"Ms. Jarrett lived up to the Obama Administration's commitment to candor and openness," Boening said. "She was willing to have a relaxed, honest conversation, answering questions directly, without deferring too often to talking points or platitudes—a rare and refreshing surprise." 

View the commencement address, or see a slideshow that highlights Jarrett's visit.