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Landscape Architecture Professor Emeritus Laurie Olin, unlike most of the 2019 honorary degree recipients, has previous ties to Penn. (Photo by Martin Vloet | CC BY 2.0)

Each year, Penn celebrates the accomplishments of a select few by giving them honorary degrees during commencement. 

This year’s cohort of recipients includes singer Jon Bon Jovi, Nobel Prize-winning doctor Denis Mukwege, animal rights and autism advocate Temple Grandin, astronomer Jill Tarter, and Senator Richard Lugar, who died recently. Two recipients are closer to the Penn community, with Landscape Architecture Professor Emeritus Laurie Olin and the former interim dean of the School of Nursing Neville Strumpf set to receive honorary degrees.

The Daily Pennsylvanian talked with three of the honorary degree recipients about their careers and their reactions to the recognition.

Olin has a distinguished pedigree in designing projects at some of the most prominent locations in the United States, such as Apple Park in Cupertino, Calif., the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and Bryant Park in New York City.

Olin recalls that the notification from Gutmann’s office “came out of the blue,” and he had to keep the news confidential. 

“It’s nice when people value what you’ve done,” Olin said. “But it also makes you feel humble because there’s all these other wonderful people who don’t get such honors.”

Strumpf also noted the wide range of recipients, which made her "proud to be among [them] because it shows that Penn understands that a very broad range of contributions are important to society.” 

Strumpf came to Penn in 1982, where she served in several leadership roles like Chair of the University Faculty Senate and Division Chair for the Nursing School. Along with supervising doctoral students, she also developed an innovative gerontology program, which is the study of aging and the elderly.

Neville Strumpf

Although Strumpf is officially retired, she is still involved with Penn through her guest lectures.

“I just love Penn,” Strumpf said. “But more fundamentally, I want to stay involved. I want to be engaged. I’d like to give back.”

Strumpf cited her proudest accomplishment as her work to reduce the use of physical restraints in hospitals and nursing homes. By demonstrating how harmful the practice was, she said she was able to enact “a very profound change in the way we take care of older people in this country.”

The honorary degree recipients come from different backgrounds, but one characteristic they share is their passion for giving back to their communities. 

Similarly to Strumpf, Olin is officially retired after more than 40 years of teaching but stays involved with Penn. He currently teaches a graduate studio and a lecture course in landscape architecture. 

Olin’s studios have included locations in Lebanon, the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, and the Czech Republic. 

“Our students are from around the world,” Olin said. “I didn’t think we should be doing just little American projects.”

Olin added he was most proud of designing places for people that have changed their lives, such as Bryant Park and the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles.

“You really are helping shape an environment,” Olin said. “And you want the world to be healthier, and more productive, more beautiful.”

Tarter serves as the Emeritus Chair for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute and has delivered major contributions to the field of astronomy. She was the only woman in her class of 300 engineering Cornell students, which she described as a tough experience.

“Socially, these were difficult experiences, and they were inequalities that we need to remove,” Tarter said. “We can’t waste half the world’s brains.”

Tarter, who is a former chief scientist of NASA, has spent her life exploring the question: “Are we alone?”

“I like to tell young people that one of the best things about being a scientist is if you never have to grow up, you really never have to stop asking why,” Tarter said.

The eight honorary degrees will be awarded at the Commencement ceremony on May 20.

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