Michelle Obama’s story
In many ways she would make history as first lady.
(Page 2 of 4)
At Princeton, Obama had suddenly entered new cultural territory, and her senior sociology thesis – on “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” – reflects some of the questions it raised for her.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
“My experience at Princeton has made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before,” she wrote in the introduction, talking about her fears that she would always remain at the periphery of white society, and also her awareness that an Ivy League education had instilled in her many of the same values and goals as her white classmates.
The thesis, for which she surveyed black alumni about their Princeton experience and their subsequent involvement with the black community, hints at an internal struggle over her identity.
But her friends say she was self-assured, interacted well with both white and black students, and had little interest in politics.
“Unlike most college kids looking for themselves, she was not unsure of who she was,” says Angela Acree, her roommate for three years and still one of Obama’s best friends. “She had a really good sense of self.”
Ms. Acree and Obama spent a summer working at a Fresh Air Fund camp for girls in the Catskills. At Princeton, Obama started an after-school program for children of university workers. At Harvard Law School, she worked in a program in which students gave legal services to indigent clients.
It stemmed, in part, from a desire to please her father, believes Professor Ogletree. “She was going to prove to him that she was going to keep her commitment to be like her brother – a college graduate and a professional-school graduate and someone who gave something back to the community,” he says.
Still, when she graduated in 1988, Obama first went to work at a large law firm – Sidley Austin, where she met Barack – when she was assigned to mentor him as a summer associate. She seemed to be on track for a successful corporate law career.
Several years later, she shifted back toward public service, first working for the city of Chicago in the mayor’s office and the planning department, and later running the first Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a nonprofit that encourages young people in public service. Eventually, she took a job at the University of Chicago Hospitals managing community and external affairs, from which she’s currently on leave.
Those who have worked with her describe a woman who is competent and organized, who expects a great deal from both herself and those working for her, and who is able to cut through bureaucracy and quickly find solutions to tough problems. In her job in the planning department, Obama often fielded complaints from the business community.
“Michelle was extraordinary at figuring out what the problem was, how many different departments were involved, and pulling people together,” says Ms. Jarrett, who hired Obama for her first city job, offering her the position on the spot after a 20-minute interview that turned into a 90-minute conversation. “She’s totally analytical, practical, and insightful. Add to that these extraordinary people skills.”
At the University of Chicago Hospitals, she helped smooth the sometimes acrimonious relations between the hospitals and the South Side communities they serve. She started bus tours to introduce new employees – and the board of trustees – to the community, began a program to steer construction projects to local female- and minority-owned businesses, and dealt with crowded emergency rooms by setting up a counseling system that connected people to primary care providers who could offer preventative care.
“She will talk about difficult issues openly, and it’s very disarming, because she is direct,” says Susan Sher, her boss at the Medical Center. “But she’s also kind and approachable, so people are more likely to talk about what’s really going on.” Still, that bluntness has gotten her into trouble on the campaign trail.