Cedric Jefferson still isn't sure what prompted him to pick up the phone that day when he was 12 years old.
He had bounced around between five elementary schools, endured family battles with addiction and watched siblings head off to group homes. But what gave an adolescent the self-possession to know that his aunt and uncle, whom he barely knew, would offer the path to a better life?
"I guess something inside of me just keeps driving me in the right direction," he says. "I made a judgment call. I didn't even know what I was doing. I just knew that enough was enough."
Jefferson, 22, is sitting at a conference table in the business school at Morgan State University. Since he asked his aunt and uncle to take him in 10 years ago, he has become an honors student, interned at JPMorgan Chase and impressed his mentors so thoroughly that they want their children to "be like Cedric."
On Saturday, he will not only become the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college, he will be one of just three students to graduate with high distinction from Morgan's Graves School of Business and Management. After that, he'll begin a career with the FBI.
Growing up in towns around Westchester County, N.Y., Jefferson considered himself a "bad kid." He didn't do anything worse than cursing, staying out late and stealing bikes, but he saw his group of friends heading in the wrong direction. He says his mother couldn't give him and his siblings the stability they needed.
"She tried to be strong for us," he says. "But we had to go our separate ways."
He clashed at first with his aunt and uncle, who gave him chores and demanded that he be home before dark. But gradually, he realized they were offering him the solid family life he had always wanted.
"It wasn't necessarily easy at the beginning," says his uncle, Hubert Jordan. "We didn't jell. But he was always asking questions, and I knew from early on that we had a diamond in the rough. He just needed polishing."
Jefferson and his cousin liked to talk about how they'd go to college and become rocks of stability for their family. "When you get into a bind, who do you call?" Jefferson says. "We didn't have anybody. But we wanted to be those people you rely on."
He worked every summer so he could buy his own school clothes instead of burdening his aunt and uncle. In school, he had the natural ability to get decent grades without working too hard, but his true passions were football and basketball.
He was accepted at the University of Maryland, College Park and Old Dominion University, but the parishioners in his church told him he would be taken care of at Morgan, and he heeded their advice. He quickly realized he was too small to stand out on the football field, even at a non-powerhouse.
So he had to find a new focus for his ambition. "I had to try to find a way to get some money," he says of his mind-set at the time.
Jefferson started his college career in remedial classes. But by his sophomore year, he had earned merit scholarships and pushed his way into the honors program. He loved his leadership seminar, taking to heart Professor Karen Proudford's message that a person's background is irrelevant in business; results are what matter.
"He really hit the ground running," Proudford says. "We say to our students that it's important to understand the expectations and then exceed them. He understood that concept."
At a marketing internship in Manhattan after his freshman year, Jefferson impressed his supervisor, Charisse Fulton-Taylor, so much that she says, "He became like my right hand."
Though she hasn't worked with him in three years, Fulton-Taylor will be at his graduation on Saturday with her 13-year-old sister in tow. "I want her to meet Cedric," she says, "to show her that with a little more striving, she can be in that spot."
Jefferson has received A's in all but two of his courses.
At some point, he stopped thinking of his finance studies as a path to building wealth. He remembered the way his mother, working two jobs and making decent money, squandered disposable income. He thought of how his grandmother, who worked three jobs, never set up a retirement plan. He wanted to use his new expertise to teach people a better way. So, among his other big goals, he hopes to establish a nonprofit group to teach financial literacy.
But he'll address those ambitions after he takes on another dream, the FBI. Jefferson always found himself drawn to the cool movie cops with their badges and guns. "For some reason, I never liked the bad guys," he says with a laugh. "I always liked it when they got caught at the end."
He turned down four other internship offers for last summer as he waited on the bureau to review his application. Finally, the FBI accepted him. At headquarters in Washington, he immediately turned his financial acumen to monitoring for fraud. After graduation, he'll work for the bureau as a financial auditor, and in a year, he'll be old enough to apply for agent status.
In many ways, Jefferson has already become the man he wanted to be. He's a role model for his younger brothers, one of whom is in college and another who is about to go. He's on good terms with his mother, who's doing better and has two young children. He's on track for his dream career.
"It's very much an amazing journey," his uncle says.
Just don't expect Jefferson to dwell on how far he has come.
"I knew I was going to graduate the day I stepped on this campus," he says. "I don't enjoy the moment. I'm always looking at what's next."