Conan O’Brien Hosts Star-Studded Gala for Students Who Beat the Odds

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Liza Powell and Conan O'Brien

"It's our favorite night because it's the one night they sort of have their priorities in line in this town," O'Brien told THR at the Children's Defense Fund's Beat the Odds awards ceremony.

The night was about fighting evil with good, Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman said as part of her opening remarks Thursday evening at the 27th annual Beat the Odds awards ceremony. Held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the event featured five high-achieving high school students who overcame immense obstacles in hopes of attending college and were honored by the nonprofit.

"This is an absolutely evil time ... [and] you fight evil with good people standing up to say, 'We're going to move forwards and not backwards,'" Wright Edelman said at the gala.

Speakers throughout the evening mourned the lack of accessible health care and immigration programs in the United States but expressed optimism and pride at the honorees, many of whom would be the first in their family to attend college.

Emcee Conan O'Brien thanked guests, who "literally dodged fire to get here."

"Anyone of these fine Beat the Odds honorees would make an excellent president, and I'd be happy for them to start that job tomorrow," he said.

"It's our favorite night because it's the one night they sort of have their priorities in line in this town," O’Brien told The Hollywood Reporter of the event. "So this is kind of magical — I just love it."

Following a candlelit dinner in the pink-themed ballroom, stars Kate Hudson, Gabourey Sidibe, Jussie Smollett, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Chike Okonkwo presented the real stars of the night — the five scholarship recipients — with a speech and short video.

Honoree Ana-Mariana Sotomayor Palomino came to America with her mother, fleeing domestic violence. The DACA recipient is also one of THR's Women in Entertainment mentees.  

Smollett-Bell, who directed the video about recipient Ja'Nay Carter, introduced her as "my little sister from here to eternity." Carter's mom died of illness and her father was in and out of prison. She currently commutes from Long Beach to school, where she's captain of her step dance team.

Cambodian immigrant Mey Sok, whose brother drowned before he could attend college, worked in her mom's doughnut shop. Future electrical engineer Jerry Howard Goss received a heart transplant in elementary school before going into foster care. Jacqueline Martinez lived in a one-bedroom apartment with no electricity when her parents lost their jobs. She later helped clean movie theaters with her mother and now dreams of becoming a filmmaker.

"It's really really important to pay attention to kids who are trying to do their best in school and trying to really do their best in life. This is their foundation," Sidibe told THR.

Sidibe said when she was in high school, her parents weren't interested in her education, so she had to do it on her own, attending class from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m.

"My senior year, I didn't think that I was going to graduate," she said. "And I actually did. I was very surprised ... It was the hardest thing that I've ever done." As a "struggling" high school student herself, Sidibe said she's impressed by the students' perseverance.

"This scholarship really shows that people's challenges, their past, their obstacles are things that they can be proud of … and be seen as a stepping stone to make oneself better," student Jerry Howard Goss told THR. "Challenges are a good thing. They're not always bad."

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