Yale awards honorary degrees to eight individuals for their achievements

At its 316th Commencement, Yale awarded honorary degrees to eight individuals who have achieved distinction in their respective fields.
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President Peter Salovey poses with this year's honorary degree recipients: (seated, from left) John R. Lewis, Marin Alsop, Peter Salovey, Jessie Little Doe Baird, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, (standing, from left) John Kerry, Irwin Jacobs, Cori Bargmann, and Stevie Wonder. (Photo © Joy Bush)

At its 316th Commencement, Yale awarded honorary degrees to eight individuals who have achieved distinction in their respective fields. Their citations follow:

Marin Alsop

As the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, you connect audiences around the world with great music. Your career is studded with firsts: You were the first woman to receive the Koussevitzky Conducting Prize from the Tanglewood Music Center, the first principal conductor of the Colorado Symphony, the first female music director of a major American orchestra, and the first woman to conduct the last night of Proms. You are also committed to sharing the joy of music widely: OrchKids, a program you started in Baltimore, has provided music education to over one thousand at-risk children — helping them learn not only new skills but discover new passions as well. Magnificent maestro, Yale joins vivace in a chorus of appreciation as it proudly awards you the degree of Doctor of Music.

Jessie Little Doe Baird

Your commitment to the past, present, and future of indigenous communities has made an enduring contribution to the life of your people. As the co-founder of the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, you are working through research and education to preserve and revitalize a language once spoken by tens of thousands in southeastern New England. Your work has helped reach into the past and reclaim what has been lost, connecting all of us to our shared humanity. Citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and representative of the Native American tribes throughout our nation, as we stand here on what was once Native land, I am humbled to present you with this Doctor of Social Science degree.

Read biographies of the 2017 honorands

Cornelia Bargmann

By studying a tiny, almost invisible roundworm, you are unlocking the secrets of the human brain. Your exploration of the modest but nobly titled C. elegans worm will help us understand how genes and environment interact when people make decisions. In addition to your pathbreaking research, your leadership of the national BRAIN Initiative will help other pioneering scientists advance our understanding of the mysteries locked in the brain’s 86 billion neurons. With amazement and appreciation for your work in neurobiology, which benefits the entire human family, we proudly confer upon you the degree Doctor of Science.

Irwin Jacobs

We are living in an era of unprecedented change. Technology has revolutionized our world, allowing people to communicate faster and more effectively than ever before. You have been a leader of this data revolution: The digital wireless technology you developed is used in hundreds of millions of cell phones around the world, profoundly altering how we communicate and how we live our lives. As a philanthropist who sees beyond science, you continue to celebrate human ingenuity through the arts, culture, and education. Wizard of engineering, for your visionary leadership and innovative ideas, we are honored to bestow on you this degree of Doctor of Engineering and Technology. 

John Kerry ’66

Ever since your Yale College days, you have worked to fulfill your “rights and responsibilities” toward your fellow citizens. After graduation, you enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Returning with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star for valor in combat, and three Purple Hearts, you spoke your conscience to Congress — and spoke up for your fellow veterans, helping found the Vietnam Veterans of America. As a U.S. Senator and then as Secretary of State, you have served this country and its people for over three decades. Esteemed statesman, in recognition of a lifetime of service and leadership, we are honored to present you with your second Yale degree, the Doctor of Laws.

John R. Lewis

From Freedom Rider to statesman, you have championed civil rights and public service for six decades. You have faced beatings, violence, and intimidation with steadfast nonviolence. From the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to the halls of the U.S. Congress, you have been the conscience of our nation — guiding us in the great, unfinished march toward equality, civil rights, and human dignity. Devoted champion of America and of all of its people, in recognition of a lifetime of bold action and inspiring results, we are honored to present you with this Doctor of Laws degree.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Author, playwright, activist, and scholar, you have shown us the power of words to change the world. You have written in English and in your Kenyan language, Gĩkũyũ; you have worked in prison cells and in exile; and you have survived assassination attempts — all to bring attention to the plight of ordinary people in Kenya and around the world. Brave wordsmith, for breaking down barriers, for showing us the potential of literature to incite change and promote justice, for helping us decolonize our minds and open them to new ideas, we are privileged to award you this degree of Doctor of Letters.

Stevie Wonder

The Music of Your Mind has brought joy to millions. You told us to “Clap our hands/just a little bit louder,” and the whole world clapped along. A Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with 25 Grammy Awards and an Oscar, you have always sung to us in the Key of Life,while working to help the poor, sick, and marginalized. Whether you were “Living for the City” or speaking up for “Misrepresented People,” you brought us to “Higher Ground,” with your incisive protest songs. And you got the whole country to sing “Happy Birthday” to Dr. King, helping establish a national holiday in his honor. Sorcerer of song, in appreciation of your irresistible music and your courageous humanitarian efforts, we are proud to present you with this Doctor of Music degree: “Signed, sealed, delivered, it’s yours!” 

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