Award-winning author, Tulane University professor and MacArthur Fellow Jesmyn Ward will deliver the address at the 2017 University of Michigan Winter Commencement.
She also is 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, Mississippi, 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 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 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 (Bachelor of Arts, ’01, American culture, LSA)
Alexander, a practicing psychotherapist in New York City, was born with a rare genetic disorder called Usher syndrome type III and is slowly losing her sight and hearing. Her memoir, “Not Fade Away, A Memoir of Senses Lost and Found,” won the Indie Book Award and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Books for a Better Life Award. She serves on the Disability Rights Advocates East Coast Advisory Board.
• Tonya Allen (Bachelor of Arts, ’94, sociology, African studies and African American studies, LSA; Master of Social Work and Master of Public Health, ’96, School of Social Work and School of Public Health)
Allen, the president and chief executive officer of The Skillman Foundation, is committed to making Detroit a healthier and more just and equitable place, especially for children. She founded and was executive director of the Detroit Parent Network and led the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative. Among many honors, she was named by Crain’s Detroit Business as one of the most influential women in 2016.
• Carla Dirlikov Canales (Bachelor of Music, ’02, School of Music, Theatre & Dance)
Canales, an internationally renowned artist and mezzo-soprano, has performed with many of the world’s leading opera companies and orchestras, and is known for her achievements as an entrepreneur and advocate for the arts and culture. In 2016, she founded The Canales Project, which aims to give “voice to issues of identity and culture through music and conversation.” She is the first opera singer to receive a Sphinx Medal of Excellence.
• Darren Criss (Bachelor of Fine Arts, ’09, SMTD)
Criss’ 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 L. Drennan (Ph.D. in biological chemistry, ’95, Medical School)
Drennan is a professor of biology and chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a 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. Among many accolades, she received MIT’s Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
• Senait Fisseha (internship, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, ’00; residency, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, ’03; fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Medical School)
Fisseha, director of international programs at the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, and clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical School, is a global leader in expanding access to reproductive health services, especially in developing countries. She has overseen international grant making at the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation to advance women’s health and reproductive rights globally since 2015.
• Heather Hill (Ph.D. in political science, ’00, LSA; postdoctoral fellowship, ’07, School of Education)
Hill is 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. Her research spans teacher professional development, large-scale teacher evaluation, and mathematics teaching quality. Hill also co-authored “Learning Policy: When State Education Reform Works.”
• Matthew Kotchen (Master of Science, ’03, resource policy, School of Natural Resources and Environment; and Ph.D., ’03, economics, LSA)
One of the leading environmental economists of his generation, Kotchen is a 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)
Woodson, who played football for U-M from 1995-97, is the third and only defensive U-M player to win the Heisman Trophy. His career spanned 18 seasons in the NFL playing with the Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers. Woodson retired in 2015 and joined ESPN as a football analyst. He established the Charles Woodson Foundation, which supports research at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital. (Woodson will not be attending the ceremony.)