From Princeton to the White House

Michelle Obama carries forward service focus nurtured at University

by Emily Aronson

It was in the halls of Princeton’s Third World Center that class of 1985 graduate Michelle Obama cultivated her commitment to service. In January, she will be the first Princeton alumna to serve as first lady of the United States.

photo of Michelle Obama on the campaign trail
The first Princeton alumna and African American to serve as America’s first lady, Michelle Obama — shown above on the campaign trail — will bring to the White House a service commitment cultivated during her time at the University. (photo: Courtesy of

Obama, formerly Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, majored in sociology at Princeton and was actively involved with African American and service organizations on campus. She will be the first African American first lady.

Her commitment to serving her community was nurtured at Princeton as she served on the Third World Center’s governing board and was coordinator of its after-school program. The center, now known as the Fields Center, was established in 1971 to provide a social, cultural and political environment that was responsive to issues of ethnic and racial diversity.

“The grace, intelligence and compassion we see in Michelle Obama today were evident when she was a student at Princeton,” said class of 1984 graduate Hilary Beard, a friend of Obama’s while at Princeton. “She was always kind toward and attentive to other people, especially children, for whom she exhibited tremendous concern. In particular, this was reflected in her community service tutoring children in the town of Princeton.”

Czerny Brasuell, director of the Third World Center from 1981 to 1984, said Obama was an empathetic and honest student who identified with the needs of others — traits she is sure to bring to the role of first lady.

photo of Obama in the Pyne Hall courtyard
Obama, shown in the Pyne Hall courtyard in 1983, was involved with the Third World Center and other service activities during her time at Princeton. (photo: Kenneth Bruce)

“Her strengths as a tremendously humane and intelligent individual would be used in service of whatever role she saw fit to take on,” Brasuell said.

Obama’s interest in public service continued after graduating from Princeton and Harvard Law School in 1988. After working at the law firm Sidley Austin in her hometown of Chicago, she served as assistant commissioner of planning and development for the city of Chicago and then as the founding executive director of the Chicago chapter of Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program that prepares young people for public service.

She also worked for the University of Chicago, where she developed the university’s first community service program as associate dean of student services, and later became vice president of community and external affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Beverly Thomison-Sadia, a 1986 graduate and friend of Obama’s at Princeton, said, “Michelle has proven her commitment to her family and the nation by persisting through a long and contentious campaign. She serves as a role model for women everywhere with practical advice and a solid grounding in reality. There is a calling evident in her life, which has carried her from Chicago to Princeton and beyond. This same calling now takes her to Washington, D.C. Her willingness to give herself over as wife, mother, adviser, ambassador and leader demonstrates once again Princeton in the nation’s service.”

Derrick Burns, a friend and fellow member of the class of 1985, added, “As a student, Michelle accepted nothing less than excellence. As a member of the community, Michelle gave tirelessly of herself to all who asked. As a loyal friend, Michelle told you not what you wanted to hear, but what you needed to hear. More than just a symbol, Michelle truly embodies the qualities that we hold so dear: honor, commitment to truth, dedication to friends and family, and service for the common good.”

photo of Obama’s yearbook entry
Obama’s entry in the Nassau Herald yearbook.

For her senior thesis in sociology, Obama took a personal and academic approach by focusing on the experiences of African American students at the University. Her thesis, titled “Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” was advised by Walter Wallace, now a professor of sociology emeritus.

“She was an extremely hardworking student who learned a great deal from doing the research for her thesis and expressed that fact very clearly, honestly and impressively. ... In general, she impressed me as a very quick study, so I am not at all surprised at the very positive impression she gave on TV during the campaigns,” Wallace said.

Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, is a member of Princeton’s class of 1983. Robinson played on the Princeton men’s basketball team, earning two Ivy League Player of the Year titles, and is now the head men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University.

Michelle and President-elect Barack Obama were married in 1992 and have two daughters, Malia and Sasha.