Valerie Jarrett, the longest-serving senior adviser to President Barack Obama, has had a consequential impact across the American political, civic and business landscape. Jarrett will share wisdom and perspectives about her leadership roles with 490 graduates of the Spelman College class of 2017 during her Commencement address at 3 p.m., Sunday, May 21, at the Georgia International Convention Center in Atlanta. She will also receive the National Community Service Award at the ceremony.
“As a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and as a leader committed to service, Valerie Jarrett embodies the attributes that inspire Spelman women,” said Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., president of Spelman. “She is adept at leading change. A skilled collaborator, she is able to balance disparate interests and points of view in order to effect meaningful change. We are honored to have Ms. Jarrett as our 130th Commencement speaker.”
Raised in London, Chicago, and Shiraz (Iran), Jarrett oversaw the White House offices of public engagement and international affairs. She also chaired the White House Council on Women and Girls during the Obama administration. Her role involved mobilizing elected officials, business and community leaders, and diverse groups of advocates behind efforts to expand and strengthen access to the middle class, boost American businesses and the U.S. economy, and champion equality and opportunity for all Americans. Jarrett helped President Obama develop a broad coalition of partners to execute a robust agenda through her oversight of the Administration’s advocacy for workplace policies that empower working families; leadership of campaigns to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, and efforts to end sexual assault and reduce gun violence.
Prior to joining the Obama administration, she was co-chair of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team and held leadership positions for The Habitat Company, Chicago’s Transit Board and Department of Planning and Development, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, the Chicago Stock Exchange, the University of Chicago Medical Center Board of Trustees, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Jarrett earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Stanford University and Juris Doctor from University of Michigan Law School.
Katherine Johnson, a pioneer of the American space movement, was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and was trained as a mathematician and physicist. Because the local schools only offered classes to African Americans through the eighth grade, her father enrolled his children in a school 125 miles away from their home, where Johnson’s mother and three siblings lived during the academic year until they all graduated from college. Graduating from high school at age 14, she attended West Virginia State College (now University), where she majored in mathematics and French and graduated summa cum laude at age 18, earning a Bachelor of Science degree. She was one of the first African Americans to attend West Virginia University where she completed several graduate courses.
After teaching for seven years in elementary and high schools in West Virginia and Virginia, in 1953, Johnson joined the Langley Research Center (LRC), which later became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as a pool mathematician or “human computer.” At NASA, Johnson provided computations for the early space program, including computing the launch window for astronaut Alan Shepard’s 1961 Mercury mission. She also provided calculations to propel space capsules into orbit around the moon and to send landing units to and from the lunar surface. Johnson plotted backup navigational charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. In 1962, computers, which replaced human computers, were used for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth. But, according to Johnson, NASA officials called on her to verify the numbers generated by the computers. She also calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo flight to the moon, which she has described as her most significant work.
While working in NASA’s Flight Dynamics Branch at LRC, Johnson helped author the first textbook on space. Later in her career, she worked on the space shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and plans for a mission to Mars. Johnson co-authored 28 scientific papers during her 33 years with NASA before retiring in 1986.
Johnson’s social influence as a pioneer in space science and computing is demonstrated by the honors she has received, including the Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award at NASA; numerous NASA LRC Special Achievement Awards; National Technical Association Mathematician of the Year; and honorary doctorates from the State University of New York at Farmingdale, Capitol College in Laurel, Maryland, and Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1968 and 1999, she was honored as the West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year for her scientific achievements, and in 1997 she was recognized as one of 24 Black inventors and scientists at the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia. In 2000, Johnson was inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame in Atlanta.
Johnson was one of the 17 recipients of the 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in November 2015. In 2016, she received the Presidential Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from West Virginia University, and NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
"Hidden Figures," a movie about Johnson and her African-American colleagues at NASA, was released in late 2016.