Video: Obama Admires Detroiter, 22, Who 'Never Gave Up, Pushed Herself to Excel'

Ciearra Jefferson, a Detroiter who just graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., has earned public attention before -- but nothing like the surprise during last weekend's commencement.

Near the end of a 45-minute address to the Class of '16, President Obama named the 22-year-old -- the first in her family with a college degree -- as an example of "why I remain optimistic about America."

Delivering his last commencement speech as president, Obama told Jefferson and classmates: "Young people like you are why I never give in to despair." 

CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield, who interviewed her Sunday, calls it "the ultimate shout-out."

"People like Ciearra are why I remain optimistic about America," the president said Saturday at Howard University.

Jefferson's tuition at Howard for a communications degree was covered by a Gates Millennium Scholarship won four years ago as a senior at University High School Academy, part of Southfield Public Schools. That scholarship program, established in 1999 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, provides full undergraduate and graduate school tuition for minority students with financial need. Jefferson's selection was covered by The Oakland Press and WDIV -- her first media attention.

The senior's divorced mother, Yolandria Shelton, attended Saturday's campus ceremony and was startled to hear the president say:

I've learned about some of the young people graduating here today. There's a young woman named Ciearra Jefferson, who’s graduating with you. And I'm just going to use her as an example. I hope you don’t mind, Ciearra

Ciearra grew up in Detroit and was raised by a poor single mom who worked seven days a week in an auto plant. And for a time, her family found themselves without a place to call home. They bounced around between friends and family who might take them in.  By her senior year, Ciearra was up at 5 a.m. every day, juggling homework, extracurricular activities, volunteering, all while taking care of her little sister.

But she knew that education was her ticket to a better life.  So she never gave up.  Pushed herself to excel. 

This daughter of a single mom who works on the assembly line turned down a full scholarship to Harvard to come to Howard.  

And today, like many of you, Ciearra is the first in her family to graduate from college. And then, she says, she’s going to go back to her hometown, just like Thurgood Marshall did, to make sure all the working folks she grew up with have access to the health care they need and deserve.  As she puts it, she’s going to be a “change agent.” She’s going to reach back and help folks like her succeed.

And people like Ciearra are why I remain optimistic about America. Young people like you are why I never give in to despair.

Encouraged by seatmates, the Detroit student stood as he spoke about her. The crowd applauded and cheered.

In her TV interview a day later (video below), Jefferson appears with her mom from CNN's studio in Washington.


"Ciearra is the first in her family to graduate from college," President Obama noted. (LinkedIn photo)

"It was definitely a surprise," the new graduate tells Whitfield, a fellow Howard alumnae. "I had spoken to a speechwriter previously about the Howard experience, but I didn't know at all that I'd be used as a person of reference."

The ambitious young woman, who has an impressive website, says: "I will be executive coordinator of community affairs for Detroit Medical Center" before studying at Emory University in Atlanta for a master's degree in public health. And yes, a Gates-financed PhD also is in her plans.

"My ultimate career goal is to be a health consultant or work in crisis management," her LinkedIn page says.

Saturday's VIP shout in Washington hasn't received news coverage back home until now, aside from a two-sentence mention Monday by Jack Lessenberry in a Michigan Radio commentary on another part of the speech.  

Jefferson's cumulative grade point average at Howard, where she joined Delta Sigma Theta, was 3.95 (out of 4.0). During the first half of 2015, Jefferson participated in a foreign study program at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where she conducted a self-assigned research project looking into health care barriers for patients co-infected with HIV and tuberculosis. A report on her findings suggests ways to ease access to treatment. 

During the Mother's Day interview on CNN, Shelton recalls being "really shocked" when Obama suddenly said Jefferson's name. 

"I was screaming, 'That's my daughter! That's my daughter!' It's unbelievable. I will never forget the experience for the rest of my life."

See Obama's tribute and the mother-daughter interview here: 

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