I was 23 years old, a third-year law student ready to embark on my dream career in the music industry. Having completed a music business degree at NYU, I felt more than ready to make things happen.
My boyfriend (now husband) Riley and I were home for my brother’s graduation ceremony. We were both almost finished with law school and had already talked about the possibility of getting married. Our plans included an out-of-state move to Nashville, where I would pursue a career on Music Row.
The commencement speaker for my brother’s graduation was Mr. Jay Rye III, a local luminary. As he spoke, I daydreamed about our plans for the future; I thought about our wedding, our careers and every step we would take along the way. Then something the speaker said caught my attention. He challenged the graduates not to contribute to Alabama’s “brain drain,” a long-existing problem in which young, talented Alabamians leave the state to follow their ambitions elsewhere. “Invest in Alabama,” he said. “Chase your dreams, but whenever possible, contribute to building up your home and making it a better place.”
I don’t know if the graduates were listening, but I sure was. And so was Riley. How many bright, talented individuals had we seen leave the state to pursue careers in so-called greener pastures? Montgomery and the State of Alabama had hard-to-fix problems. Would it make the difference if Riley and I, who care deeply about our home, put down roots? Ambition to follow one’s dreams is admirable, I thought, but so is realizing a responsibility to stay and help lift up a community. If we didn’t, who would?
At 23, I didn’t know what I had to offer. Possibilities raced through my mind. Maybe I could practice law in Montgomery. Maybe I could volunteer and become a civic leader. Maybe I could get more involved at church or in local schools. Whatever my decision, I knew – along with Riley – I felt a sudden and certain calling to stay in Montgomery and help my community and state become a better place.
A few short years later, our local city council member announced her retirement. Watching the story on the evening news, I elbowed Riley and he shot me a knowing look. Though young and inexperienced, I worked hard and won that council race. Years later, I entered an equally-unlikely race for Congress and won it as well. Now, beginning a second term in Congress, I realize I’m just scratching the surface of what I can do to help solve Alabama’s hard-to-fix problems.
That commencement speech compelled me to lean in to a lifetime commitment to public service; into working through the often-difficult political system to make a positive difference. It’s been a team effort all the way, and I’m grateful for the opportunities Riley and I have had these last ten years. I’m also proud that I have a role in making our hometown, our state and our country a better place to live for our daughter and son.
There’s an old saying: “We plan and God chuckles.” Life may have been fine if it had gone according to my original plan, but I believe I’ve reaped even greater blessings by leaning in to my home state than I ever would have discovered on Music Row.