Being married to a U.S. senator, working full-time and raising a family is a balancing act for Michelle Obama '85. She is the wife of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals and a mother of two.
"Politics is stressful on the life of a family," she said. "You just have to keep working and try to prevent politics from droning out the rest of your life."
Obama said she learned about balancing many commitments while at the University, where she said she excelled academically.
"When I wasn't studying, I was working," said Obama, who ran a day care program at the Third World Center, now the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, to fulfill her work-study requirement.
"Being one of the school's few African-American students at the time, I found there weren't many opportunities for minorities," she said. "So we created a community within a community and got involved at places like the Third World Center."
Obama said having an older brother at the University helped her feel more at home. Many of her closest relationships were with friends of her brother Craig Robinson '83, the fourth-leading scorer in the school's basketball history.
"To Craig, Michelle was his baby sister," Obama's friend Kevin Williams '83 said. "But it was clear the first time I met Michelle that she was nobody's baby."
After graduating with a sociology degree in 1985, she attended Harvard Law School and was immediately hired as a corporate attorney at Sidley & Austin. The law firm, now Sidley, Austin, Brown & Wood, is one of the biggest in the country.
Obama was assigned to mentor Barack, who was a summer intern at Sidley & Austin, and the two began dating soon after in 1991. The couple shared a passion for public service.
"We had many debates about how to best effect change," she said. "We both wanted to affect the community on a larger scale than either of us could individually, and we wanted to do it outside of big corporations. It was not a 'make a lot of money, wrap it up and call it a day' thing."
Obama decided to step off the corporate path not long after joining the firm.
"I wanted to experience other fields," Obama said. "I thought it was too limiting to decide already that this was it for me."
After leaving the firm, she took a job as assistant to the Chicago mayor, specializing in human service initiatives. One year later, she became the assistant to the chairman in the Chicago Office of Planning and Development.
While working there, she was asked to start the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, a leadership program for young adults pursuing public service jobs. The nonprofit organization, part of President Bill Clinton's Americorps program, was open to anyone with a GED or high school diploma.
"It was so interesting, because we had people who had just graduated from high school taking internships alongside people who had just graduated from Harvard," Obama said. "I learned that you can go to the best school in the country and still not realize what you can do to help the community."
She then transferred to the University of Chicago, where she worked as assistant dean and started a program similar to Public Allies for college students. Soon after, Obama became executive director of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals. This past March, she was promoted to vice president of the department.
Obama continues to be active in the public sector, helping the hospital engage with the Southside Chicago population through volunteer programs and community-based outreach and education.
"Obama is fun but levelheaded, well-grounded and practical," said Angela Acree '85, Obama's former roommate at the University. "It doesn't surprise me at all that she has helped her husband become [a] senator."
While some call Barack the Democratic party's hope for the future, his wife said he is only as powerful as his seniority rank in the Senate: 99 out of 100. But she said his incredible intelligence and genuine compassion do make him a good politician — and a good family man.
"There is no particular impact to being married to a senator other than being married to Barack, who is my husband," Obama said. "Some day, he may take on a more influential role in politics. For now, our future is our kids."
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