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Obama’s Confidante Gets Candid: Valerie Jarrett Shares Exclusive Opinions with Atlanta Voice

By Titus Falodun Contributing Writer | 5/20/2013, 6 a.m.
White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett addressing the 2013 Clark Atlanta University graduates.

ATLANTA-- Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President of the United States Barack Obama, sat at a table like a deadline pressed student meticulously reading and revising; prepping to deliver the commencement keynote speech at Clark Atlanta University on Monday morning.

Even in her urgency, Jarrett exuded calm and flashed an effortless smile. Maybe it was because she’s accustomed to handling more pertinent, big-picture issues. Or maybe it was the soft, smooth r&b tune gently blanketing the room.

Either way, in an Atlanta Voice exclusive sit-down interview with Jarrett, who also serves as Assistant to the President for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs in the Obama administration, she candidly shared the good, the bad, and the humorous sides of commencement speaking.

Atlanta Voice: What does it mean to give the commencement speech at Clark Atlanta University?

Valerie Jarrett: “Giving the commencement speech at CAU is deeply meaningful to me. Our nation’s historically black colleges and universities are pillars of educational excellence, and so many of our young people come out of these universities committed to trying to change the world.

“It’s an awesome responsibility to speak to them at a day that they’ll never forget in their lives.”

AV: What’s your approach in giving this commencement speech?

VJ: “I have a few jokes. I’m not going to tell them to you right now, but my younger staff has helped me come up with some jokes, to try to break the ice a little bit. I will do my best. I thought the President [Barack Obama] did a really good job at Morehouse, in the thunderous rainstorm. He was very well received, in part, because he had some humor. And you do have to keep it light, in at least the beginning, so that people will listen to you when you have a more serious message.”

AV: What do you remember from commencement speeches that you attended, which you utilized in writing this speech?

VJ: “Nothing! [Laughter] And that’s part of the challenge, is that I don’t remember any of my commencement speakers.”

AV: Were you even there?

VJ: “[Laughter] I was there, for sure. I think people are caught up in the moment and the emotion. They’re anticipating walking across the stage, receiving their diploma and being surrounded by the love of their family, so it’s very challenging to say something to them that would be memorable.”

AV: How do you think today’s graduates are dealing with the weighty burden of student loan debt, which is reportedly now at $1.1 trillion?

VJ: “It’s very challenging. The good news is that thanks to the President, he has increased the amount of student loans that are available to our young people, so that more young folks have the opportunity to go to college. But when they finish, they do have a lot of debt.

“It’s a big challenge. And I think part of why the President has focused on this issue is that it wasn’t that long ago that he finished paying off the loans he and his wife [First Lady Michelle Obama] had accumulated in college. And his wife always says, ‘If you hadn’t written a couple of best-selling books, we might still be paying back those loans’. But not everyone can count on writing a bestseller. And so it’s real challenge.