The National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS) brought Valerie Jarrett, the longest serving senior advisor to former President Barack Obama and current senior adviser to the Obama Foundation, to campus. On Tuesday, Oct. 22, Jarrett addressed Montclair State University students and faculty about her life journey.
Jarrett was born in Shiraz, Iran and resided in London for one year before her family moved to Chicago. She opened up about her childhood experiences for the audience.
“Growing up, I was timid and did not speak up for myself, I used to get beat up after school every day because I was different,” Jarrett said.
Jarrett discussed the realization of her identity, which transpired into her becoming the woman she is today.
“I found a job that advocates for others that did not have a voice, and from there I learned how to advocate for myself,” Jarrett said.
Jarrett received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Stanford University in 1978 and earned her juris doctor degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1981. Later, she worked for a major law firm and admitted that she was not content with the job, but felt obligated.
“I had a great job in a big law firm and everybody thought my life should be perfect, including my parents. I was the first lawyer in my family, [but] I was not proud of myself,” Jarrett said. “I was miserable and had to do some soul searching. A friend suggested that I join the administration of Mayor Harold Washington; I listened and worked for the city government.”
In 1991, Jarrett served as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Chief of Staff, which led her to meet Michelle Robinson, who later married Barack Obama. Jarrett called Robinson in for a job interview and was instantly in awe of her.
“Ms. Robinson told her life story and did not reiterate what was on her resume. People can read your resume, but you have to tell them your story,” Jarrett said.
She shared the importance of taking time to build relationships and being vulnerable with people. Robinson invited Jarrett to have dinner with her and her fiancé at the time, Barack Obama, to discuss the job Robinson had been offered.
“If I did not take that offer for dinner, I would have never been the senior advisor for President Barack Obama,” Jarrett said.
That one dinner turned Jarrett’s life around, she became an influential member of the Obama administration. She served as the senior advisor and oversaw the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs.
“I wasn’t just born sitting on this couch, there were challenges, failures, love, disappointment and adventure,” Jarrett said. “If you open up to tell your story it is easy for people to hear what you have to say when you have messages for them.”
Students left feeling inspired, especially the women in the room. Deshonna Williams, a senior majoring in family and child studies, described what she took away from the event.
“It is encouraging to see that this woman stepped out of her shell so that she would not miss out on opportunities,” Williams said.
Amira Lawson, a senior majoring in psychology, shared her own thoughts on Jarrett’s appearance.
“It is nice to see women in a powerful position and letting us know how it feels to work in a male dominant position,” Lawson said.
Jarrett is named “100 Most Influential People” in Time magazine and a best-selling author to her book, “Finding My Voice.”