News Alert: Nobel Peace Prize winner to give 2012 Commencement address Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Joey Fund founder Joseph O’Donnell to receive honorary degrees
By James FessendenUMass Medical School Communications
January 10, 2012
A peace activist known for her decades-long, non-violent struggle for freedom, justice and equality in Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected female head of state in Africa when she was inaugurated as Liberia’s 24th president in January 2006. Prior to her election, she spent decades fighting to improve the Liberian government while holding numerous public positions. As president, Johnson Sirleaf has worked tirelessly to rebuild the country by focusing on developing infrastructure, maintaining peace and eradicating corruption, as well as improving the health care and educational systems of the country. In 2011, Johnson Sirleaf successfully ran for re-election to a second term as president.
Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf attended high school at the College of West Africa before traveling to the United States to pursue her college studies. She went on to earn a degree in accounting from Madison Business College in Madison, Wis., and continued her studies at the Economics Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In 1969, she enrolled at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where she studied economics and public policy, earning a master of public administration degree in 1971.
Her career in politics began in 1972 when she delivered a famed commencement address at the College of West Africa, during which she sharply criticized the Liberian government. In 1979, she was named minister of finance by then-President William Tolbert and introduced several measures to curb the mismanagement of government finances. After the 1980 military coup d’état, she briefly served as president of the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, before fleeing the country and the increasingly oppressive military government.
In 2003, when the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) was formed, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia, where she led the country’s anti-corruption efforts as chairperson of the Governance Reform Commission. She resigned this position to successfully run for president in the 2005 elections.
Johnson Sirleaf received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakel Karman of Yemen, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” according the Nobel committee that awards the prize.
Over the last several years, the Liberian government has worked closely with UMass Worcester on multiple projects aimed at helping the war-torn country rebuild its medical infrastructure, including the establishment of health care training programs at the University of Liberia (UL) and an initiative to rebuild the main library and the A. M. Dogliotti School of Medicine library at UL.
Entrepreneur and cystic fibrosis advocate Joseph O’Donnell to receive honorary degree
O’Donnell’s unyielding commitment to research into cystic fibrosis and support for patients with this disease is personal in nature, as O’Donnell and his wife had a son who died from cystic fibrosis. To honor their son and help others afflicted with the disease, O’Donnell and his wife founded the Joey Fund in 1986. The Joey Fund, which has raised many millions of dollars, works in partnership with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to support vital research into new treatments for this incurable genetic disease, as well as providing financial assistance to patients and their families.
O’Donnell’s influence and support for cystic fibrosis has extended far beyond the Joey Fund. He has served as a trustee of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and as chairman of the Foundation’s Milestone to a Cure campaign, which has raised an unprecedented $175 million. To recognize his tremendous contributions in advancing progress toward a cure for the disease, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation presented O’Donnell with the Foundation’s highest honor, The Breath of Life Award, in 1994.
A graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Business School, O’Donnell served as CEO and chairman of Boston Culinary Group which, under his leadership, grew from a small concession company with less than $1 million in annual revenue to a multi-million dollar corporation that managed food service operations in arenas, convention centers, performing arts centers and airports throughout the country. When Boston Culinary merged with Centerplate in 2010, O’Donnell became chairman of one of the largest food service operators of its kind.
U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin to receive honorary degree
Born in Mobile, Ala., Dr. Benjamin earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Xavier University, New Orleans, and her medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. After completing her residency in family medicine at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon, Ga., she opened her own practice in 1990 to provide primary care services to the 2,700 residents of Bayou La Batre, an underserved fishing village situated in the coastal region of Alabama.
Because of her experience at the intersection of medical practice and health care policy, Benjamin was tapped by President Obama to become the 18th surgeon general of the United States in 2009. As
“America’s Doctor,” Benjamin is responsible for protecting and advancing the health of the nation by providing the public with the best scientific information available on how to improve their health, as well as advocating for effective disease prevention and health promotion programs. Benjamin also oversees the operational command of 6,500 uniformed public health officers who serve in locations across the globe to promote and protect the health of U.S. citizens.
In 1995, Benjamin was the first physician under age 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees. In 2002, she became the first African-American female president of a state medical society in the United States when she assumed leadership of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama.
Among her many recognitions, Benjamin was the U.S. recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 1998 and was honored with a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2008.
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