Nearly 200 Claflin University graduates received bachelor’s and master’s degrees on Saturday, along with a lesson in the power of choice.

Commencement speaker N. Nicole Nelson-Jean talked about growing up as the daughter of a single father who never made her question whether she was important or loved. The U.S. Navy veteran was a nurturing and caring man who made her feel like she could do anything.

“I will tell you it is through my civil service career that at just 24 years old, I was able to lead tactical crews twice my age across the 11 time zones in Russia, protecting nuclear materials to prevent them from being sold and made into an improvised nuclear device, or so-called dirty bomb. When I was just over 30, I was appointed a U.S. diplomat in Tokyo, Japan and then again in Vienna, Austria,” she said.

She also had the privilege of being responsible for one of only three nuclear weapons development laboratories in the nation before she turned 40.

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Nelson-Jean said that each of her achievements was “curated by the choices I made.”

Nelson-Jean is now associate administrator for the Office of Infrastructure in the National Nuclear Security Administration.

She’s a member of the federal Senior Executive Service, whose members serve in the key positions just below the top presidential appointees.

She’s now “responsible for the entire infrastructure of the U.S. Nuclear Security Enterprise valued at over $130 billion.”

In her current role, she is responsible for safely maintaining, operating and modernizing NNSA’s infrastructure. She also oversees programs and construction projects with an annual budget of nearly $6 billion.

Nelson-Jean said she believes strongly in the power of choice and admonished the graduates to exercise their own power to prepare themselves for elevation and transformation.

“Transformation can happen again and again. … At the end of the day, your opportunity for transformation will likely be wrapped up in a choice. As you navigate the challenges and embrace the opportunities that lie ahead, remember that you hold the power to shape your own destiny through the choices you make,” she said.

The class was touted for its resilience in making it through a global pandemic, which began during their freshman year at Claflin University. It was an experience that included hybrid learning, face masks and social distancing.

Nelson-Jean said the graduates can be equally resilient in overcoming those who may doubt their ability to succeed beyond Claflin University.

“With every decision I had in my professional life, someone told me that it was impossible for me to be there. I felt I was too young, I was a woman, I was Black, … I did not have the right friends. … But let me tell you something: None of that mattered,” she said.

Nelson-Jean continued, “The fact that they thought I was not good enough for whatever reason did not matter because I had a choice. I had lots of choices and regardless of what anybody tells you in person, online, in a chat, in a blog, on TikTok, Facebook or Instagram, you always have a choice. The moment you believe you have no choice is the moment you shackle yourself.”

“You stop thinking, you stop believing. You have a choice each and every day you have breath in your body. No one can stop you from your happiness but you. Oh, and happiness is a choice. Prosperity is a choice. Believing in yourself is a choice and no one can take it away,” she said.

Nelson-Jean advised graduates to not let others’ ideas of them determine what they can or cannot do.

“In my career, I’ve faced constant obstacles and naysayers who doubted my ability, yet with each challenge I was reminded of the power of choice, the choice to persevere, to defy expectations and to embrace the unknown with courage and conviction,” she said.

“Just as I’ve learned the power of choice and transformation, … each of you have undergone your journey of growth and transformation during your time here at Claflin. What is amazing is that with your degree from Claflin University, you have increased your choices and opportunities for your future exponentially,” Nelson-Jean said.

“You are the architects of your own destiny and the captains of your own ship. The journey, again, may be challenging, but it is also brimming with limitless possibilities. With each choice you make, you have the power to elevate yourself and transform your reality. So choose wisely, choose boldly and let the power of elevation and transformation propel you for a future filled with success, fulfillment and endless growth. Congratulations and may your journey be as extraordinary as each one of you,” she said.

Briana Parker of Orangeburg graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

She said she made a choice to succeed despite facing several obstacles in her life, including dropping out of high school when she became pregnant at age 15. She later obtained her GED from Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College.

“I’ve been through some things, and I made it through. So my goal when I chose psychology is to reach back and help others that are just like me, … to let them know that it’s never too late. Delayed but not denied. Even with everything that I’ve been through, I still had hope,” she said.

Anaiya Whaley graduated Saturday as one of the class’s six valedictorians. She graduated with bachelor’s degrees in mass communications and psychology.

“It’s just been like a dream come true. With the pandemic happening in 2020, there was a lot of uncertainty. I was able to walk for my high school graduation, but it was very brief and, of course, we had to practice social distancing. But this time, at this moment, we’re able to fully celebrate. I’m just really excited and ready to start new beginnings and chapters of my life,” Whaley said.

Her parents and paternal grandmother all graduated from Claflin, with her grandmother being among the Golden Class of 1954, which was recognized during Saturday’s commencement exercises.

Whaley urged each class member to be fearless in the face of adversity, remain humble and always show up as their best selves as part of her graduation speech.

Claflin President Dr. Dwaun Warmack recognized the graduates as leaders in a class of their own, including, but not limited to, Johnnie Glover, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in organizational management as the first graduate of the university’s Pathways from Prison Program. Warmack said Glover will be hired as an outreach coordinator at the university following his graduation.

“This is a celebration. … We’re extremely proud of their success,” he said.

Contact the writer: or 803-533-5534. Follow “Good News with Gleaton” on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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