WASHINGTON — For Michelle Obama, corporate law turned out not to be the career she wanted to look back on at the end of her life.
"I had to ask myself whether, if I died tomorrow, would I want this to be my legacy, working in a corporate firm, working for big companies," the first lady told employees of the federal agency tasked with managing public service programs. "And when I asked myself the question, the resounding answer was, absolutely not."
Mrs. Obama spoke Tuesday to about 250 employees of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the latest stop on her listening tour of the federal bureaucracy.
The deaths of her father and a close friend made her realize that she needed a change in direction, she said, and led her to quit her job at a law firm and choose a career in public service. She helped to establish Chicago's chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps community service program that trained young people for jobs in the nonprofit world.
Although the first lady worked at Public Allies until 1996, her most recent position was as executive vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals, a job with a six-figure salary.
"National and community service is near and dear to my heart," the first lady said.
"There is nothing more fulfilling," she said. "It's an opportunity to put your faith into action in a way that regular jobs don't allow."
Mrs. Obama urged Americans to get involved with community service, individually or as a family, saying that it's a great way to demonstrate one's values and to give back to the community.
"For many Americans it may seem impossible to squeeze even more time out of the day and do more," she said. "But I still strongly encourage people to think about volunteering."
The first lady praised the $5.7 billion national service bill her husband, President Barack Obama, signed last month. It triples the size of the AmeriCorps service program over the next eight years and expands ways for students to earn money for college by helping those in their neighborhoods.
"It's just beautiful to see this country and people of all walks of life, regardless of party, recognizing that this is a really good thing," she said. "This is where patriotism begins."
Mrs. Obama noted that the national service bill will allow kids from varying economic backgrounds to get involved.
"When I was coming up, volunteering and doing an internship seemed to be a luxury that working-class kids couldn't afford," she said. "It is so important that young people, regardless of their race or their age or their financial ability, that they have a chance to serve."