Though her audience usually consists of diplomats from around the world, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power will address the graduates and attendees at Penn’s 259th Commencement on May 18.
Power, who is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist, was named today as this year’s commencement speaker. A cabinet-level officer, Power is currently one of the most powerful women in the federal government. Power will be Penn’s first female commencement speaker since actress Jodie Foster in 2006. Prior to Foster, actress Jane Alexander, who also served as chairwoman of the National Endowments for the Arts, was the last woman to speak at Penn’s Commencement in 1995.
“Not only is she a woman with a very high level position in the government and someone who is incredibly accomplished as a scholar and human rights advocate, she also is in a position ... where there are very few women,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said. “I think it will be great to hear from someone who has been as successful as she has and will only go on to do more.”
In addition to the several cabinet-level officers, two other U.S. representatives to the United Nations have delivered addresses at Penn Commencements. John Foster Dulles spoke in 1949, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. spoke in 1956. Additionally, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was the commencement speaker in 2005.
Before being named to her post in the United Nations, Power served as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights on the National Security Council. She was the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she delivered the commencement address last year. Power started her career as a journalist covering unrest in Yugoslavia and won a Pulitzer Prize for her book ”A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.”
“She hits on a number of issues that are certainly of interest to the Penn community and certainly are major issues in the world that we live in,” Vice President and University Secretary Leslie Kruhly said, trumpeting Power’s record on human rights, women’s rights, democracy and human trafficking.
As a journalist and diplomat, Power walks in very different circles from last year’s commencement speaker, singer-songwriter and 1999 College graduate John Legend.
“I like the fact that the range of our speakers reflect at least a small fraction of the range of our University,” Gutmann said. “We like to bring in honorary degree speakers who can speak meaningfully to our students and can be role models for them. I think both John Legend and Samantha Power hit all the bases.”
Power will also receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the commencement ceremony. Other honorary degree recipients include astronaut Ellen Ochoa, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, Perelman School of Medicine professor Arthur K. Asbury, Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO) founder Joan Myers Brown and Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award-winning actress Rita Moreno. The final recipient will be Cass R. Sunstein, the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School.
Sunstein has one additional distinction on his resume — he has been married to Power since 2008. The couple met working on Obama’s first presidential campaign. While Penn has previously given honorary degrees to married couples — the most recent being Lonnie Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson for their work in paleoclimatology in 2013 — it is unusual for two spouses to be recognized for different fields of work.
“On their own, they’re both eminently worthy honorary degree recipients,” Gutmann said of Sunstein and Power. “And given how busy their lives are, we thought it would be nice for them to at least spend this day together.”
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