Northfield Mount Hermon School Commencement Address
By Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett
May 22, 2016
Thank you, Peter, for that kind introduction and for your leadership of this special place that is so dear to me. And thank you to Chairman Fuller and the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and staff who have been so dedicated to NMH.
Now … would all the parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and loved ones who have sacrificed so much to enable the Class of 2016 to reach this important milestone please stand up. Class of 2016, show them your love.
And finally, of course, most importantly, to the Class of 2016, congratulations! Enjoy the moment, but know this is just the beginning.
Now, I’m going to be honest with you — I don’t remember my commencement speaker. I was so excited about my summer plans and feeling so nostalgic about saying goodbye to so many friends and teachers.
Plus, I was exhausted. From pulling all-nighters cramming for finals and writing those last term papers. And Chat. In fact, all I really remember from Chat was that the night ended very suddenly, with a trip to the emergency room when my best friend’s boyfriend fell down a flight of stairs.
It was actually more of a stumble.
And I know many of you were up at the crack of dawn, in theory to see the sunrise, because I could hear you.
So I bet you’re feeling both exhilarated and exhausted.
See, even though it was a long, long time ago, – I actually do remember what it was like to be in your exact shoes.
When I arrived at NMH as a junior in 1972 – yes, go ahead, do the math – I was joined by two of my dearest cousins. One, Toni Bush, is here with me today. The three of us thought we were totally prepared for the academic rigors of NMH, and since we had each other, we were confident that we would never be homesick.
Plus, my family has a long tradition of NMH graduates. Including my mom and Toni’s mom, a total of 10 of us attended some combination of Northfield, Mount Hermon, or NMH. Our moms’ generation at a time when many of our nation’s finest boarding schools were not welcoming to African Americans. Since its founding by Dwight Moody, this place has always been.
Well, let me tell you, notwithstanding all of that tradition, those first few weeks were a real wakeup call. My academic swagger was shaken by my very first exam. My cousins lived in a dorm on the other side of the Northfield campus, so we were way too far apart (and too busy) to provide each other much emotional support.
And then there were all those new rules. What you call Workjob, we called Dummy – wise move to change that title. My first one required waking up at 6 am to make coffee (which I did not drink).
In our dorms by 10:30 on weekdays – I guess some things don’t change. No boys on the second floor. I thought back then, seriously!? Now, I get it.
I had to figure out what Vespers was, and how to dress for it. And Mountain Day for a girl from a big flat city left me winded and cold. In Chicago, the idea would have been to stay out of the cold, not embrace it, on a chilly fall morning.
At first, I really struggled to find my footing, literally. I second-guessed my decision to leave my family, my childhood friends, and my home – particularly my bathroom. And, I was painfully shy. Hard to believe, I’m sure.
But over time, the rigor of my classes evolved into a challenge that I welcomed. I came out of my shell and became increasingly intellectually curious – mostly thanks to extraordinary teachers and classmates who challenged me mightily, in a safe and welcoming environment. In time, I developed a real passion for spirited debates over ideas, old and new. And, importantly, I made lifelong friends who I treasure to this day.
Although I couldn’t have appreciated it at the time, now, as I look back, I know my life’s journey was positively shaped by what I learned, and who I met here. And Class of 2016, I’m confident that yours will be too.
For that, NMH, I am forever grateful, and delighted to have the opportunity to return home and say, thank you.
Now, those of you who watch “House of Cards,” “Scandal,” “Homeland,” or “VEEP” — four of my favorite shows, I admit — you may think you have some insight into what I actually do.
In the course of every day, we have literally a thousand balls up in the air at any one time. Our goal is simply to ensure they all land safely, in the right place, at the right time.
What could go wrong?
To give you some insight, my “easiest” day last week, for example, was Tuesday. I participated in meetings on the spreading Zika virus, criminal-justice reform, the 2017 budget. I attended a panel discussion and the screening of the re-make of the series Roots. Then was briefed on the final plans for the President's trip to Asia that began yesterday, a 50-state summit on reducing gun violence, and our June 14th summit on the United State of Women. And closer to home for you – we brainstormed on what more we could do to end the epidemic of sexual assault on our college campuses.
All that before lunch. See, lunch is just an expression we use that means noon. We don't actually have lunch – we subsist on Diet Coke (just kidding, please don’t tell the First Lady I said that).
No day bears any resemblance to the day before, and every day I experience a full range of emotions.
I have traveled all over our great country, and the world. I’ve dined with the queen of England at Buckingham Palace, and also with a group who had been sentenced to life in prison, and then had successfully made their case to the president for clemency. I’ve been inspired by countless ordinary people who do extraordinary things. I am moved to tears of both joy and sheer amazement every single day. As I drive through the gates of the White House each morning, I remind myself, even on the darkest days, and there have been more than a few, how fortunate I am to be a public servant for the greatest country on Earth.
And, as we near the sunset of the Obama Administration, I can say without qualification that I have been honored to serve every second.
Now, that doesn’t mean it has been easy. Far from it. But every bit of discomfort, and yes sometimes downright pain, has been well worth it to have a ringside seat to history. And I encourage you all to make the effort to find the same fulfillment in your lives.
Now, in case you’re wondering how on earth I got from your seats in 1974 to where I am now, I will explain, along with just a few of the countless lessons that I’ve learned, many times the hard way, along my rather circuitous journey.
When I left NMH, I planned to major in human biology and become an anthropologist. Why? Because I had an extraordinary anthropology teacher here, and the internationally renowned anthropologist, Jane Goodall, was a professor at Stanford. When I arrived at Stanford, I discovered that Jane had decided to take a two-year sabbatical. Who knew?
Now what? Well, I drifted away from anthropology because it did not have the same allure without Jane. I made a run at pre-med (until I visited an anatomy class and took organic chemistry). Double whammy. Then English, where my teaching assistant was a relatively unknown writer named Scott Turow, who has now sold more than 30 million books. (I’ve often regretted not having stuck closer to Scott.)
And I eventually settled on psychology. But, I was so anxious about finding the right major, that I did not embrace the joy of exploring my many options. It felt like a burden.
Lesson number one: Enjoy the adventure. Class of 2016, please take full advantage of the next few years, whether you are going directly to college or taking a gap year, you have the luxury of continuously replenishing what I hope is insatiable intellectual curiosity that I know firsthand was cultivated right here. Relax. And enjoy it. You’ll see and absorb so much more if you’re open to the adventure of new possibilities.
Maybe you're dead set on becoming a neurosurgeon, but a class on Plato may help you discover a love for the classics. Or, you’re a writer hoping to be a promising poet, but if you gave yourself the opportunity, you would develop a passion for coding.
I remember feeling stressed out in college. Looking back I cannot think for the life of me why that was. So …
Lesson number two: Figure out how to stay grounded and whole. Find out how to soothe yourself. For me it was exercise and great music. And, make the effort to develop friendships with those who support and nourish you, whether you’re up or down. People who bring out the best in you, not the worst in you.
For without healthy coping strategies, support, and a good sense of humor, it is easy to burn out, in college, and in life.
Which is my third lesson: Life is not a sprint, but a marathon. Feel free to change course, in search of what gives your life meaning. Only you can discover that.
The pace of change in our world today can create this false sense of urgency that we need to do, do, do – that there isn’t time to take a moment to contemplate, where you can gain perspective.
By my senior year of college, I was frantic over what to do next. I was accepted to the University of Michigan’s law school, and locked in without much thought. I was in such a hurry to figure out what to do, that I didn’t give myself room to discover what I actually wanted to do.
In law school, I was fascinated by administrative and regulatory law classes and began exploring jobs with the federal government. But law firms came made it so easy. They came to our school. They flew us back to their offices, and wined and dined us.
Slowly, I lost sight of my interest in public service, joined a law firm, and drifted into the dreadful path of least resistance.
And with each passing month, I was afraid that I had already gone too far, and invested too much time, to turn and try something new. Gosh was that wrong.
Lesson number four: Avoid the path of least resistance. It will lead you to a mundane life, and you deserve better.
I spent six years in the private practice of law, increasingly uninspired practically from day one trying to work towards being a partner. It was not until my early thirties, after I married, had a baby, then divorced, that I faced the obvious fact. I was totally miserable. I was a passive participant in my own life.
Don’t do that. As President Obama always tells our intern classes, “Worry less about what you want to be, and think more about what you want to do.”
Thankfully a dear friend suggested I apply for a job working in the law department of the City of Chicago. A distant memory was triggered of my law school interest in public service. I took a leap of faith, a cut in salary, and traded my gorgeous view for a cubicle facing an alley. From day one I knew I had finally listened to that all too quiet voice inside of me – and I never looked back.
Lesson five: Trust your instincts.
I buckled down, worked hard, and actually enjoyed practicing law because I cared passionately about what I was doing.
And four years later, Mayor Daley appointed me to be his deputy chief of staff.
And it was then that I met Michelle Robinson, now more commonly known as Mrs. Obama, or the First Lady of the United States. I interviewed her for a job, she introduced me to her fiancé to convince him it was a good idea! And, well, the rest as they say, is history.
Now, throughout my time in city government, I engaged with a wide and diverse range of stakeholders and learned to listen. Really listen. Knowing that in order to be in service of the citizens of Chicago, I had to know and understand them. For that’s what it means to be a public servant.
Sometimes the voices I heard were raised a bit loud, other times they were calm. But regardless of their tone or volume, I knew my job was to engage and connect. And, I admit, at times it was really hard.
I learned how to listen most closely to those with whom I disagreed. And in most cases, given enough time and effort, we found common ground. And yes, sometimes I realized I was, in fact, wrong, and they were right.
Which brings me to lesson six: Compromise is not a bad word. In fact, in the complex, diverse, and interconnected world in which we live, it is essential. And our failure to be open to compromise can have disastrous consequences.
I hasten to add, of course, never compromise your integrity, ethics, or your core values.
These skills served me well when I ran a real estate company, served on corporate and civic boards, and certainly in the White House as a senior advisor to the president.
And speaking of the White House, I’m so proud we have not succumbed to the toxic polarization we see in today’s politics. And I implore you to resist any temptation to do so either. Always treat people with decency and respect, both in person, and online – that reflects strength, not weakness. I’ve never regretted being kind – even when I’ve been met with hostility in return. And, I have often regretted being short-tempered, or intolerant.
Please continue what I know many of you have learned to do at NMH. To be open to new ideas and new people. To disagree without being disagreeable. To be willing to learn and, yes, even change your mind.
Each of these lessons I’ve shared served me well throughout my career. Without them, it’s safe to say you would not have invited me to return today.
There is no better time to be alive than right now. With all of its flaws, the United States is still the greatest country on earth. So, Class of 2016, you have everything going for you. And remember, those to whom much is given, much is expected.
Remember that life is not a sprint, so pace yourselves. Breathe. Explore. Change course freely. Take risks knowing that you may fail. For if you never fail, you have not challenged yourself outside of your comfort zone enough.
Be decent, and stay true to the true north of your moral and ethical compass, while maintaining your grit, determination, and resilience.
Take care of your mental and physical health and respect those of others.
This morning, as I toured the Northfield campus, probably for the last time, my thoughts were not of the buildings, but the memories of the many good people I met there who touched my life in profound and meaningful ways. So the final lesson is, work hard at staying in touch with one another, Class of 2016. For trust me, if nurtured, your special bonds of friendship, having shared this extraordinary education together, will provide nourishment throughout your lives.
So go forth and tackle the challenges of our world, together.
We’re counting on you.
[Note: These are Jarrett’s remarks as prepared for delivery.]