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Sen. Kelly Ayotte tells grads career ‘twists and turns’ often lead to true calling

In her commencement remarks to the class of 2015, U.S. Sen. and Penn State alumna Kelly Ayotte shared stories from her own career to underscore how unplanned detours can lead to finding one's true calling in law.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Embrace the unexpected. That was U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s advice for the Penn State Dickinson School of Law class of 2015 during her commencement speech May 16 in University Park. Sharing stories from her own career, from her time as a Penn State student through her rise to the U.S. Senate, Ayotte emphasized that unplanned diversions often lead to finding one’s passion.

“You may think you have plan for your career, but I can assure you there will be twists and turns along the way,” Ayotte advised. “Rather than thinking that those bends in the road of life are detours—they can be opportunities to find a career that you love.”

After graduating from law school, Ayotte took a job in private practice with the goal of paying off her student loans. “The thought of becoming a murder prosecutor, attorney general, or a U.S. senator had not crossed my mind,” she said.

A few years into her law career, she was asked to cover a federal arraignment for a partner at her law firm. In over her head, she joked that her client had more courtroom experience than she did. However, that experience made her realize that she wanted to be in the courtroom serving the public. She was eventually hired as a prosecutor in the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office and within a decade became the first woman to serve as attorney general of New Hampshire.

“What I took from that experience is that sometimes what looks like a detour in your career can actually be a path to finding your true calling—something you have a passion for,” she said. “I wish for each of you that you use your law degree to pursue your passion—that you find the career path that allows you to use your law degree to its fullest—so you can excel at what you do and that you make a difference.”

Attorneys, Ayotte said, make that difference in respecting the rule of law and helping others find justice.

“Regardless of the role you choose, one thing every lawyer has the ability to do is to speak truth to power,” she said. “That means standing up for the weak or disaffected or those who don’t have a voice; to understand that when we defend the most unpopular of among us, we do a great service to our justice system. That means standing up for what you believe to be right and ethical, even if it’s tough. It means telling clients not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. It means admitting what you don’t know.”

Finally, she underscored the responsibility that accompanies law practice.

“When you receive your law license, don’t underestimate the awesome opportunity you have to affect people’s lives for better or for worse, and the responsibility that comes with that power,” she said. “With the degree you receive today—you have the opportunity to make our country a stronger, more just and compassionate place. Don’t squander that opportunity. Embrace it.”

Ayotte, a Penn State alumna, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010, having previously served as attorney general of New Hampshire from 2004 to 2009. In the Senate, she serves on the Armed Services, Budget, Commerce, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committees. She is chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness and the Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation Operations.

Ayotte served as the chief of the state's Homicide Unit and deputy attorney general before being named New Hampshire attorney general. During her time as attorney general, she successfully led efforts to secure the first capital murder convictions in New Hampshire in over 60 years—for which the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper named her "Citizen of the Year" in 2008.

Ayotte graduated from Penn State in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and holds a J.D. from Villanova University.

Her complete commencement speech can be viewed online via C-Span.

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