Detroit teen who lost mom to cancer perseveres with 4.3 GPA, full-ride scholarship


Detroit teen who lost mom to cancer perseveres with 4.3 GPA, full-ride scholarship

Cass Tech’s Aubrey Vaughn ran for class president to make life better for her fellow seniors. And a loving support network is making sure Vaughn’s life remains bright after her mom’s death in January.

Scott Talley

Detroit Free Press

Detroiter Aubrey Vaughn has a lot on her plate.

She’s a 17-year-old Cass Technical High School senior with a 4.3 grade-point average in Cass Tech’s International Baccalaureate diploma program, which prepares students for entry into colleges worldwide through an academically rigorous course load.

Vaughn also is senior class president, because, as she said, she wanted to help “make great things happen” for her classmates following the three years of challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She also works hard, literally, sometimes holding down more than one job at a time, to take care of herself and her two younger siblings. She has to. In January, Vaughn’s mother, Valerie, died of cancer, leaving her and her village of family and friends to hold it all together.

It’s a good thing Vaughn loves math, because life has presented her with the type of problems — including unsolvable problems of the heart — that could leave even Pythagoras crestfallen and stumped. Yet, like the words of Maya Angelou’s famous poem — and still Vaughn rises.

“I look at life like solving an equation: You make room for challenges, but you can’t shut down,” Vaughn says with a sage wisdom that belies her teenage years.

So she pushes on, clinging to her guiding math principles, the love and life lessons instilled in her by her mother, and the devotion of her “village.”

“Some problems won’t have a solution,” Vaughn expounded while describing her grieving and coping processes. “Ultimately, life does move on, and you still have to carry on. Like in math, you move on to the next chapter with different information. I expect the next chapter to be different and more difficult, but I feel enlightened.”  

During the early stages of Vaughn’s new life chapter, she has continued to take on a motherly role with her younger sisters Avery, 11, and Anniston, 7. Vaughn also has continued to be active in extracurricular activities, including overseeing the National Honor Society’s tutoring program at Cass Tech. But on March 6, Vaughn’s weekday routine, which typically begins at 6 a.m. and ends around midnight when all of her homework is done, included a wrinkle, which literally required her to pull over to the side of the road while driving home. A conversation with a friend made Vaughn check her email. And waiting in her inbox was a message saying that she had received a full-ride scholarship to Spelman College in Atlanta.      

“Mom wanted me to go out of state for college,” said Vaughn, who plans to major in computer science at the Historically Black College as part of a program that also will enable her to take several classes at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). 

And while perhaps not spoken out loud, Vaughn says going back as far as her kindergarten days, when her mother would bring her to evening MBA classes at Wayne State University and give Vaughn her phone for company as she sat in the back while class was taking place, her mother’s life delivered a forceful message about the importance of sacrifice and duty to family.  

“As a single parent, my mom did everything for us to make sure we were good,” Vaughn said, citing the long days of work and study her mother put in to best support their family, as one of the primary reasons why she naturally has to take care of her sisters now; and why she worked two jobs in the summer and works as often as she can during the school year. 

Vaughn says her mother’s giving nature also has influenced what she dreams about doing in the future. Some of those dreams include opening a dance studio targeting young people that may not otherwise be exposed to the arts; launching a hybrid STEM learning center with arts programs, and ultimately retiring as a math professor, simply because Vaughn loves math and wants to instill a love for the subject in her future students, just as her math teacher Mark Duhaime has done for her at Cass Tech.    

“Aubrey is always doing the right thing,” says Sherri Moore, who was in the same 1995 Cass Tech graduating class as Vaughn’s mother, Valerie. “She is very mature, she’s very driven and she extends herself to others.”

Like Aubrey Vaughn, Moore also has a kindergarten story to share about Vaughn’s mother. But in this story, Moore and Valerie Vaughn are both in a kindergarten class at Gesu Catholic School in Detroit when Moore is scolded by a teacher and laughed at by other students for throwing a doll from a balcony — she was attempting to share the popular toy with another child below. What that teacher and many of the other students were unable to understand was the simple, yet genuine thing that Valerie Vaughn did, which sparked a deep friendship that the two classmates would carry on through their school days and beyond. She told Moore everything would be all right and comforted her. 

Moore makes it known that Valerie Vaughn was her best friend. And she speaks just as highly about Aubrey.

“With Aubrey, you have all of this excellence combined with all of this humility, it’s just the perfect blend,” said Moore, whose resume says manager of Gas Supply for DTE Energy, but on the evening of March 19 she was most interested in expressing the pride she felt to be a part of the support system for Aubrey, Avery and Anniston. 

During the conversation on March 19, praise was given for the contributions of other members of the girls’ support system, which also includes the girls’ grandmother, Patricia Vaughn-Peacock; Valerie Vaughn’s godmother, Gale West; and Aubrey’s best friend, Mariama Stewart. Aubrey’s sisters will receive extra support from the rest of the family when Aubrey goes off to college. Missing from the March 19 conversation was a mention of food. But that topic was explained three days later from the Bagley community home of Tiffany West, a neighbor to the girls who also has a deep connection to their mom.         

“Valerie was the first person I met when I moved to the block,” West recalled. “I was riding my bike down the street, and she was playing with her friend, Aaliyah (the future music superstar) and they said: ‘Hey, do you want to go ride up the big-old hill with us?’ That was on London (Street). And for a third grader, that was a huge hill. But Val took me under her wing as her little sister. And my way of honoring my sister is to cook for her children.  

“They get to pick one meal a week, and then after that, they have to eat my Brussels sprouts and green beans or whatever I want to cook. We also play games and make ice cream dessert treats. Aubrey is amazing, she’s knocking down every goal and I know Val is proud. But Aubrey still likes to giggle, and she’s still a kid, and we’re here to help her have fun.”  

On March 22, West cooked tacos, a big favorite for Aubrey, Avery and Anniston. And indeed, Aubrey should have worked up an appetite. Prior to accompanying her sisters to West’s house around 5 p.m., Aubrey already had attended three morning classes at Cass before dashing off to a scholarship interview with the Coleman A. Young Foundation at the Marygrove Conservancy, 8425 W. McNichols. Then it was back to the downtown area for a special empowerment program for girls only, held in the Cass Tech Grand Theatre. Understandably, Aubrey was a little late for the 1:30 p.m. student-planned program, which packed more than 1,600 girls into the two levels of the theater, as a host of students and guests provided powerful testimonials, including Michigan Broadcasting Hall of Fame inductee Carolyn Clifford from WXYZ-TV Channel 7. 

With no assigned responsibilities for the program, Aubrey was free to just watch and enjoy from the lower level of the theater. But her presence Wednesday, and throughout the school year really, rarely goes unnoticed by students and staff, including Cass Tech Principal Lisa Phillips. 

“I’ve known Aubrey forever and forever,” Phillips said from a packed stage Wednesday after spontaneous, joyous dancing ensued immediately following the remarks of the last program speaker. “Aubrey’s mother, Valerie Vaughn, was my brilliant, beautiful student at Cass Technical High School. And to have Aubrey here as my student, reflecting all of the values of her mom, it just brings me joy.

“Aubrey’s a beacon of light. She’s going places in life. And I just want to thank everyone for supporting her in honor of her mother. Aubrey is doing a great job and I look forward to even greater things.” 

Scott Talley is a native Detroiter, a proud product of Detroit Public Schools and lifelong lover of Detroit culture in all of its diverse forms. In his second tour with the Free Press, which he grew up reading as a child, he is excited and humbled to cover the city’s neighborhoods and the many interesting people who define its various communities. Contact him at: or follow him on Twitter @STalleyfreep. Read more of Scott’s stories at