After recently stepping down from her post at the White House, Danielle Gray, Trinity '00, encourages Duke students to pursue nonlinear career paths to best make use of their education.
Gray left her positions as assistant to President Barack Obama and Cabinet secretary Feb. 17 after serving with the president for more than a decade. During her time in the White House, Gray helped shape policies including the American Jobs Act and the Affordable Care Act and worked on civil rights issues aimed at ending discrimination against same-sex couples. She was also instrumental in confirming Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor as associate justices of the the U.S. Supreme Court.
“There are few jobs where you can wake up every day thinking, ‘What can I do to make the world or the country a better place,’ and you’re in a position to affect those issues,” Gray said. “This was by far the best part of working at the White House.”
In a statement released by the president in January, Obama referred to Gray as a close adviser and commended her brilliant legal mind, sense of humor and determined understanding of the wishes and goals of the American people.
“While I will miss Danielle, I will continue to rely on her counsel, and I look forward to watching her help push our legal system and our country in the direction of justice for years to come,” Obama said.
In March 2007, Gray started working for Obama for America as Deputy National Policy Director, where she established what would become a long and valuable relationship with President Obama. After his election she joined his administration as Deputy Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, and was eventually selected to be the president’s primary liaison to the Cabinet departments and agencies.
Gray said the security of her Duke degree was one of the main reasons she felt confident enough to sign up for Obama’s campaign in the first place. She always knew she would have a job to come back to—or have the ability to find one—thanks to her Duke education. She graduated from Duke in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and public policy. She went on to receive her J.D. from Harvard University and served as a law clerk to Associate Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court.
She encourages students to get involved in the issues, even while they are undergraduates. Whether through tutoring, helping a local non-profit or interning with a member of Congress, Gray said it is important to embrace the flexibility a degree from the University offers.
“Sometimes there is that temptation to follow the crowd, whether it’s doing investment banking or consulting or whatever the new thing is,” Gray said. “But you should really try to follow your heart. That education is going to open a lot of doors.”
Gray said many of her friends with rewarding careers in medicine or law took time after college to work at NGOs abroad, participate in Teach for America or work with their local government. She hopes more students will have this kind of attitude, especially if they want to work in public service.
Gray credits the hands-on internships and experiences she received as an undergraduate for her desire to make a difference and eventually working at the White House.
“People focus on the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington D.C.,” Gray said. “But the group of people I worked with were really committed to solving problems and creating policies to help people in their lives, big and small.”
Gray is a stand out among alumni, said Chris Simmons, associate vice president for federal relations. Simmons said Gray is continuing a long line of alumni who serve the country at the highest level of government. She also remains extremely loyal to Duke, and is connected to the University in many ways, he noted.
“Whether it’s to speak to a student looking for an internship or a job, or to give advice on maneuvering within the federal government, she is ready to help,” Simmons said. “Every time Duke has called on Danielle, she takes the call.”
She said she will eventually return to practicing law—and is interested in teaching—but will also continue to work on projects for [Michelle and Barack Obama]. Gray plans to enjoy her break from the White House by traveling, resting and going to the beach. She will continue to visit the University to speak to students, visit friends and of course, watch basketball games.
“I’m a huge Duke basketball fan,” Gray said.