Honorary degrees strengthen Commencement tradition

2012 recipients share UMass Worcester values

By Ellie Castano and Jim Fessenden

UMass Medical School Communications

May 25, 2012

At the 39th Commencement ceremony on Sunday, June 3, 248 degrees will be conferred on students who have worked for years to prepare themselves for careers in science and medicine, and who have along the way exemplified the values of UMass Worcester by embracing innovation in learning, practicing interdisciplinary collaboration and serving others. The three individuals who will be receiving honorary degrees at this year’s Commencement also exemplify values held by UMass Worcester: they include a peace activist who is helping to rebuild the health care infrastructure in a war-torn country; a businessman who was motivated by personal loss to find a way to help others; and a public servant who rose to prominence because of her dedication to serving where she was most needed. Each of them is committed to improving health outcomes by increasing access to care and advancing science through research.

Honorary degrees will be given to Liberian President and Commencement speaker Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Joey Fund founder Joseph O’Donnell and U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 24th president of Liberia, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and the first elected female head of state in Africa. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated passionate commitment to hard work, integrity and good governance, advocating for the rights of women and the importance of education to provide a better future for her country and its people.

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf attended high school there at the College of West Africa before traveling to the United States to pursue her college studies. She earned 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. She studied economics and public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, earning a master of public administration degree in 1971.

Her entry into politics came in 1972 when she delivered her now-famous commencement address to her high school alma mater in which she sharply criticized the government, showing her determination to speak truth unto power. This was the start of a distinguished professional and political career spanning nearly four decades.

She was named Liberia’s minister of finance in 1979 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.

Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated at Liberia’s 24th president in January 2006. As president, she has worked tirelessly to rebuild the country by focusing on developing infrastructure, maintaining peace and eradicating corruption, and 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.

Joseph J. O’Donnell


A prominent Boston entrepreneur who is engaged in a number of civic endeavors, Joseph O’Donnell is perhaps best known for his commitment to advancing research in cystic fibrosis and providing assistance to patients with this disease.

O’Donnell’s unyielding commitment to research and support for patients is personal in nature: his first child Joey died from cystic fibrosis in 1986. To honor their son and help others afflicted with the disease, O’Donnell and his wife, Kathy, founded the Joey Fund in that same year. The Joey Fund has raised many millions of dollars, working in partnership with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to support vital research into new treatments for this incurable genetic disease and providing financial assistance to patients and their families.

But 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 its 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.

Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA


Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA, is the 18th Surgeon General of the United States. As America’s doctor, she provides the public with the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and the health of the nation. Dr. Benjamin also oversees the operational command of 6,500 uniformed public health officers who serve in locations around the world to promote and protect the health of the American people.

From her early days as the founder of a rural health clinic in Alabama—which she kept in operation despite damage and destruction inflicted by hurricanes Georges (1998) and Katrina (2005) and a devastating fire (2006)—to her leadership role in the worldwide advancement of preventive health care, Benjamin has forged a career that has received widespread recognition. In 1995, she was the first physician under age 40 and the first African American woman to be elected to the American Medical Association Board of Trustees. She served as president of the American Medical Association Education and Research Foundation and chair of the AMA Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. 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 State of Alabama.

Among her many awards are the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, the National Caring Award inspired by Mother Teresa, the Papal honor Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice from Pope Benedict XVI, and a MacArthur Genius Award Fellowship.

Benjamin has a BS in chemistry from Xavier University, New Orleans, an MD degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an MBA from Tulane University. She attended Morehouse School of Medicine and completed her family medicine residency in Macon, Ga.

Related stories on UMassMedNow:
Commencement, part 1: 39th Commencement marks endings and beginnings
Commencement, part 2: UMMS faculty forge strong bonds with Liberia