06/11/2010 10:03 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Susan Sher Loyola Speech: 'Take A Risk, Make Mistakes'

Susan Sher, Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, spoke at Loyola Law School's commencement on May 22. Below is her speech.


Congratulations Class of 2010! I am so honored to celebrate this momentous occasion with you and your families.

I am thrilled to be back at Loyola and in Chicago, my adopted hometown. This school and this city have taught me so much, and I am grateful for the invitation to join you for this important event.

But before we honor the Class of 2010, let's take a moment to honor those who have made this day possible. Please turn around and join me in thanking your family and friends for supporting you through your first application to your final exam.

Thank you also to Reverend President, Provost Pelissero, Vice-President Hale, Dean Yellen, members of the administration and faculty, family members, friends, and members of the class of 2010...

To prepare for this speech, I did what any Loyola student would do -- I did my homework. I read graduation speeches -- from the witty, to the existential, to the thoughtful and the wise -- and they all give great advice.

Most graduation speeches talk about the characteristics you need to succeed in life. Those most often noted are passion, compassion, determination, leadership, integrity, and perhaps even a sense of humor.

But what I have heard about you, Class of 2010, tells me that you already have these traits. I know of your leadership and compassion through the volunteer and assistance programs you have participated in and community service scholarships you have received.

You've demonstrated your determination by the sheer fact that, despite the rigors of your Loyola education, you will be receiving your JD or LLM degree today.

I know that your families have instilled in you integrity and that your Jesuit education has nurtured this value as well as the tradition of serving others.

So instead of talking about the traits you already have and the things you already do right, let's start by talking about the things you can do wrong -- and why that's actually a very good idea.

In your life, you're going to make a lot of mistakes. And I'm here to tell you that you shouldn't have it any other way. The mistakes you make will define you, change you, and in what you learn from them, make you the person you'd never imagine you could become.

I'm probably the most unlikely member of my Loyola Law School Class to stand here and offer advice to this talented group assembled here.

And please note that this is not false modesty on my part. It has nothing to with my grades or my choice of courses while here.

It has to do with the fact that I wasn't even planning to become a lawyer.

I was going to be an Art Historian. My only encounter with the law was a constitutional law class I took during my undergraduate years. Something I dismissed as a frolic and detour on my road to being a scholar of the arts.

The best mistake I ever made was going to graduate school in Art History and then dropping out of school.

I began my graduate studies at the University of Chicago, survived the first quarter and then I promptly dropped out.

Not because I didn't love the subject matter. I still find indescribable pleasure in the company of paintings and sculptures.

And I didn't drop out because I couldn't handle the course load. I dropped out because I wanted to solve problems.

To be an art historian, you have to be a scholar. You must create new knowledge and scholarly theories in your field. It's a talent that has brought the world countless great discoveries.

It just wasn't for me. I knew I wanted to solve real problems, and so I decided to become a lawyer.

Some may say that my foray into art history was a mistake. It was, in a manner of speaking. But it was a turning point that led me to discover my love for the law.

I hope that you will give yourself permission to make your own mistakes. President Obama likes to call them teaching moments, and I hope your life is filled with them.

My next "mistake" was waiting to apply to law school until the summer. But in a leap of faith, I applied to Loyola -- and only Loyola - - at the last possible moment in the hope that they would admit me for the fall. And I am forever grateful that they took a chance on me.

Whether or not Loyola made a mistake is still up for debate.

So, what's next for you? You have that diploma, you certainly have the tools, but really -- what's next?

I am sure there are those of you who have the next five years mapped out with personal and professional goals. I am equally sure that some of you have absolutely no idea what's next.

The truth is it's going to be an adventure either way. Your life will never go exactly as planned -- and that is life's blessing! Take pleasure in the unexpected twists and turns that will come to define your life.

My career path was as unpredictable as my journey to law school. I took the safe route at first. I went to a big corporate law firm and became a big corporate lawyer. I'm five foot three, so it was quite a thrill to be a big anything. The firm presented a challenge that I craved: I was one of the first women partners. I enjoyed putting my own cracks in that glass ceiling. I enjoyed the training by excellent lawyers and the pride in a job well done.

And then I stopped enjoying it. Despite the respect of my colleagues and the success of my career path ... I was not fulfilled.

And so I did what I hope you will do. I took a risk. While pregnant with my second child, I quit my job, took an enormous pay cut and went to work for the University of Chicago. And then four years later, Mayor Daley was elected and offered me a job, and so I took yet another risk, yet another pay cut and became a public servant.

Most people would think of that as a huge mistake. My mother did, calling this my path of downward mobility. Yet I saw it as my path to fulfillment. And I became hooked on public service.

Being a small part of a great cause changed my life. It gave me goals and benchmarks that were beyond billable hours, the path to partnership, or income level.

That's not to say that my job or my transition were easy -- few things are. Politics was a challenge. But the skills that I learned at Loyola and the judgment that I learned from my years as a practicing lawyer -- and a practicing mother -- made the adjustment possible.

I am so grateful for taking that risk, for attempting mistake after mistake, for going into public service and discovering my lifelong passion. So take a risk. Make mistakes. Loyola has given you all the tools you need -- now you just need to summon the courage.

Public service is not a narrow term. It does not mean a life in either government or the nonprofit world - even though I highly recommend those routes. It means living a life in service to others.

If you work in a law firm, take on those pro-bono cases. If you work for a corporation, engage in community service. Take the time to mentor, clean a park, volunteer. Loyola and its Jesuit traditions have given you that foundation -- now build on it.

With an uncertain economy and many law firms pushing back start dates or not even hiring at all, some of you will be forced to take risks or make choices you could have delayed or avoided entirely under different circumstances.

But to those who say that this time is uncertain, I counter that it is rich with opportunity --- opportunity to take a risk or to make mistakes.

Take the job that pays less money. Take the job at the non-profit, become a prosecutor or a public defender, join a campaign you're passionate about, work at that smaller law firm you might not have considered. The opportunities for life-defining risks and mistakes are endless -- you just have to find them.

And while you are looking up the ladder you want to climb -- don't forget to look around you and lift others up with you.

While working for the Mayor, I had one of the most momentous meetings of my career. A young lawyer's resume landed on my desk. She was bright, hard working and ambitious. I knew I wanted to hire this young woman.

So I tried to convince her to join the city's law department. But Michelle Robinson felt that a legal perspective was too narrow. She wanted to work with the community in a broader way so she turned my offer down. I passed on her resume to my friend Valerie Jarret who hired her to work on community issues in the Mayor's office. This was the beginning of professional and personal relationships that last to this day.

Mrs. Obama made the "mistake" of leaving her law firm, and turning down a job in the City's law department because she trusted her instincts. She understood that she could match the skills she gained in law school with her passion for community service.

Years later, I hired Mrs. Obama for another job at the University of Chicago, and then -- just a year ago -- the tables were turned and she hired me as her Chief of Staff.

The amazing thing about this story is not just that this young lawyer is now the First Lady of the United States. It is also, that when you take the time to help someone find his or her path, you often end up discovering your own.

The First Lady knew what she wanted -- and over the years I was able to offer my advice and my perspective. In turn, she inspired me with her focus on public service and her determination to give back to the community.

In my office in the East Wing of the White House, I have many reminders of my past mistakes; it's as though all the dots are finally connected and that circuitous path that my life and my career have taken make complete sense in hindsight.

My time as a student of art history lives in the art that hangs on my walls, the books of the old masters that fill my office shelves and in the work I do at the White House helping the First Lady bring art to communities that haven't historically had access to it.

In between my snow globe of Chicago, and a signed tennis ball that silently scolds me to spend more time at play, sits an old family photograph.

It's black and white and has valiantly withstood the test of time. It's a photo of my father and me at age 9. Our family had taken a big trip to visit Washington DC, including a tour of the White House. I'm grinning ear to ear from the excitement of standing outside the White House gates. My father has his arm around me, and you can see the White House through the wrought iron gates surrounding it. That photo hangs in my office now beside a window that looks out at the same gates where I stood with my father.

When I was 9 years old, neither he nor I could have imagined that one day I would actually work inside that building -- much less that I would work there with my dear friends, in an administration I'm proud to be a part of every day.

No one could have predicted this. Because only mistakes -- risks, fate, and an open heart -- made it possible.

Every mistake had value -- meant something. Every mistake helped me on the path.

So, bear in mind -- you will make mistakes -- everyone does. My advice to you is to embrace them, learn from them and transform them into turning points in your life.

Take risks - Let all your choices be fueled by courage, and a sense of adventure.

And be a friend. I promise you will gain more than you give.

Remember that downward mobility can lead to soaring opportunities and happiness.

Remember that jobs don't make a life, and that you cannot be good at your job without life experience and the humanity you bring to it.

Don't think that because you've received your diploma it's time to stop learning. You've only just started.

To be interesting, you have to be interested. Cultivate your curiosity. Engage and be engaging.

Take time for the simple joys -- smile easily, laugh hard, and let yourself be moved.

Continue to question, and wonder, and criticize and analyze.

And, don't forget to hope.

You cannot solve a problem, or the world's problems, just by being a good lawyer. You do it by being a good parent, a good friend, a dreamer, an idealist.

So connect those dots, learn from all those mistakes, take the big risks and go out and change the world.

I know that you can.

Congratulations Class of 2010!