Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward will be the featured keynote speaker at the 2017 University of Michigan Winter Commencement.
Ward, a professor at Tulane University and a MacArthur Fellow, is also one of 10 Bicentennial Alumni Award recipients being honored at the ceremony, which will begin at 2 p.m. Dec. 17 in Crisler Center.
Originally from DeLisle, Miss., Ward is known for her lyrical prose and graphic portrayal of the lives of black Americans in rural Mississippi, as well as her deep insight into issues of racism, poverty, family and community.
Her books include “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” which recently won a National Book Award for fiction; “Salvage the Bones”; “Men We Reaped: A Memoir”; and “Where the Line Bleeds.” She is the first woman to win two National Book Awards for fiction.
“We are proud that a U-M graduate of Jesmyn Ward’s talent, intellectual caliber and societal influence has agreed to address our graduates at Winter Commencement,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel. “As we close our celebration of two centuries of academic excellence at our university, we’re proud to honor the graduating Class of 2017 and welcome their friends and family members for what I am sure will be an unforgettable ceremony.”
Ward said she considers it a “great honor to deliver the commencement address on U-M’s bicentennial,” adding she wants to send a message to students that motivates them to go out into the world and change it for the better.
In 2005, she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from U-M, where she won five Hopwood Awards for her fiction, essays and drama.
In honor of the university’s 200th birthday, the university will bestow 10 U-M alumni with Bicentennial Alumni Awards, which were designed in part to highlight the excellence and impact of recent graduates. The university also awarded 10 alumni awards during Spring Commencement in May.
“The varied and multidimensional work of the alumni we are honoring is a source of great pride for the university,” said U-M Provost Martin Philbert. “Their contributions in fields including the arts, health sciences, public policy, entertainment and philanthropy exemplify the university’s commitment to educating individuals who will act as both servants to and critics of society.”
In addition to Ward, the remaining nine recipients are:
- Rebecca Alexander (BA ’01, American culture), a practicing psychotherapist in New York City, who was born with Usher syndrome type III, a rare genetic disorder causing her to slowly lose her sight and hearing. Her memoir, “Not Fade Away, A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found,” won the Indie Book Award and National Multiple Sclerosis Society Books for a Better Life Award.
- Tonya Allen (BA ’94, sociology, African studies and African American studies; MSW and MPH ’96), president and chief executive officer of The Skillman Foundation. She founded and was executive director of the Detroit Parent Network and led the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative.
- Carla Dirlikov Canales (BM ’02), an internationally renowned artist and mezzo-soprano who has performed with many of the world’s leading opera companies and orchestras. She founded The Canales Project, which aims to give “voice to issues of identity and culture through music and conversation,” and is the first opera singer to receive a Sphinx Medal of Excellence.
- Darren Criss (BFA ’09), whose career spans film, music, stage and television. At U-M, he acted, directed and composed for the Basement Arts theater group. His career took a leap when he was cast on Fox’s “Glee” in 2010. Other TV credits include “American Horror Story: Hotel” and “The Flash.” He also starred in Broadway revivals, including “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in 2015.
- Cathy Drennan (Ph.D. ’95, biological chemistry), professor of biology and chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and professor and investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She is acclaimed for her pioneering scientific contributions, including determining the structure of an enzyme involved in DNA synthesis, and for her teaching innovations.
- Senait Fisseha (internship ’00, residency ’03, fellowship in obstetrics and gynecology), director of international programs at the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation and clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the U-M Medical School. She is a global leader in expanding access to reproductive health services, especially in developing countries.
- Heather Hill (Ph.D. ’00, political science; postdoctoral fellowship ’07, education), the Jerome T. Murphy Professor in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her work centers on identifying key elements of teachers’ professional knowledge and practice, developing tools to measure these elements, and using those tools to evaluate public policies and programs. She co-authored “Learning Policy: When State Education Reform Works.”
- Matthew Kotchen (MS ’03, resource policy; Ph.D. ’03, economics), professor of economics and associate dean of academic affairs at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. He is an expert on issues at the intersection of economics and policy, including climate change and corporate social responsibility. He currently serves on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Economics Advisory Committee.
- Charles Woodson (attended School of Kinesiology, 1995-98), the third and only defensive U-M football player to win the Heisman Trophy. His career spanned 18 seasons in the NFL playing with the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers and he is now an ESPN football analyst. He established the Charles Woodson Foundation, which supports research at U-M’s Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital.