White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who attended Hempstead schools, surprised Daniella Marroquin, Hempstead High School valedictorian, with a phone call, offering her congratulations and words of wisdom. Newsday TV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday staff; File Footage; The White House; Photo Credit: Marroquin Family

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had two pieces of advice for Hempstead High School’s valedictorian this week: Dream big and don’t let life pass you by.

Jean-Pierre, who attended Hempstead's Franklin elementary school, passed on the wisdom to valedictorian Daniella Marroquin in a surprise phone call. She also recorded a speech to be given at the Hempstead High commencement.

Jean-Pierre said she connected with Marroquin, who came from an immigrant family that sacrificed everything for their children to have a better life. 

"One thing I’ve learned from others, is that when you have a platform, it’s important to look back and be that person to be a mentor to someone," Jean-Pierre told Newsday. "Talking to her is important to do …  we want to make sure we’re talking to folks looking up to us. She’s much smarter and more incredible than I am, but her story is so familiar."

Marroquin was summoned to the high school Tuesday, preparing for a Newsday interview about leading her class with a 102.63 GPA, or about a 4.1, but instead had to quickly ready herself in a counselor's office for a phone call from the White House.

When she picked up the phone, Jean-Pierre was on the other end.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is seen in a...

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is seen in a pre-recorded video address that will be played at the Hempstead High School graduation on Friday. Credit: White House

“This is going to be one of the best times of your life and I’m reading about how brilliant you are,” Jean-Pierre said.

Jean-Pierre had reconnected with the Hempstead district after students wrote letters from her former elementary school, now known as Joseph A. McNeil Elementary School, which she attended for one year during fifth grade when her family moved to Hempstead. 

She said she was touched after reading about her elementary school and receiving the stack of letters from Hempstead students.

"When I read that, that's when it really hit me, what me being press secretary represented for young people," Jean-Pierre said. "You never think grade school kids know who the White House press secretary is. The fact they know that … it really meant something to them. it really transcended this moment to me."

In her recorded commencement address Friday, Jean-Pierre thanked the students from her alma mater for reaching out to her, as well as teachers and staff from the district. She also celebrated graduates and noted her own historic achievements as the first Black and first LGBT+ press secretary, rising from the Hempstead school district.

Marroquin, 18, told Jean-Pierre about her plans to go to Barnard College at Columbia University to become a doctor, like her mother. Her mom came to the United States from El Salvador before she was born, but gave up her career as a pediatrician to be a homemaker so her children could pursue higher education.

Jean-Pierre asked her about the difficulties of finishing school during the pandemic.

“It’s not been what I expected,” Marroquin said. “Not everything went to plan. But these last few months have been more stress free and I’ve been able to reminisce a bit more, and it’s a little bittersweet and I’m excited for college.” 

She then asked Jean-Pierre for advice about how to pursue her education.

Jean-Pierre told her try not to be discouraged or lose herself and her idealistic hopes to change the world.

“Follow your dreams and your passion, whatever makes you happy and you’re passionate about, go for it. Don’t worry about anything else, because I promise you, it will all work out,” Jean Pierre said. “Try to enjoy yourself too. Don’t let life pass you by. College is when you truly make friends and never lose who you are.”

Marroquin said after the call that she was nervous, but said it was easy to converse with Jean-Pierre. She called it “one of the greatest forms of recognition of her accomplishments” as valedictorian.

“I think it’s very inspirational because I think Hempstead itself is known as a predominantly minority, low-income community,” Marroquin said. “She’s achieved a very high position, so that’s inspirational for other Hempstead alumni as well."

Marroquin’s parents, teachers and principal Stephen Strachan expressed pride in Marroquin reaching her goal as valedictorian.

“She came in as a Freshman with a focus and a goal. She came from 8th grade and said she will be valedictorian,” Strachan said. “She remained focused and driven, even through the pandemic challenges.”

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