2024 Commencement Speakers and Honorary Degree Recipients

Speakers from a broad range of fields and backgrounds will share their wisdom with UConn's Class of 2024

A graduate holds their diploma cover above their head

The Neag School of Education celebrated its Class of 2023 Undergraduate Commencement on May 7 at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. (Flash Photography).

From business success to cases before the Supreme Court, from policymaking in Hartford to policymaking in Washington, from the first woman to serve as the Chief of the Mohegan Tribe in modern history to a UConn legend, the honored guests of UConn’s commencement ceremonies bring a wealth of experience, insight, and wisdom to share with this year’s graduates.

Countdown to Commencement word mark

Speakers at the ceremonies, which begin on May 4, include:

Barbara Liskov, Ph.D. (Doctor of Science – College of Engineering – Saturday, May 4 at 9:00 a.m. – Gampel Pavilion)

Barbara Liskov is an American computer scientist who is an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ford Professor of Engineering in its School of Engineering’s electrical engineering and computer science department. She was one of the first women to be granted a doctorate in computer science in the United States and is a Turing award winner who developed the Liskov substitution principle.
Liskov is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). In 2002, she was recognized as one of the top women faculty members at MIT, and among the top 50 faculty members in the sciences in the U.S.

Liskov received the 2008 Turing Award from the ACM, in March 2009, for her work in the design of programming languages and software methodology that led to the development of object-oriented programming. Specifically, Liskov developed two programming languages, CLU in the 1970s and Argus in the 1980s. The ACM cited her contributions to the practical and theoretical foundations of “programming language and system design, especially related to data abstraction, fault tolerance, and distributed computing.” In 2012 she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Medina Jett, JD, ’08 MBA (School of Business – Saturday, May 4 at 1:30 p.m. – Gampel Pavilion)

Medina Jett is an attorney, former Fortune 100 executive, and a leading voice on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the empowerment of Black Americans, professionally and financially. Jett has been an attorney in private practice and in corporate law departments, a senior executive at three Fortune 500 companies, an international business owner in asset management, and is now the principal in her own real estate development company.

Medina’s legal expertise, business acumen and leadership skills were honed in legal and corporate roles which led to her breaking into the senior executive ranks at Cigna Retirement & Investment Services, Prudential Retirement and The Hartford Life Insurance Company all before the age of 40. At Cigna, Medina was the first Black executive and the youngest executive in the company’s history. At The Hartford she was the first Black executive in the company’s history; and at Prudential, as with Cigna and The Hartford, she was the only Black executive on the senior management team. A champion for diversity her entire career, Medina served on the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity in Connecticut, as the Executive Sponsor for The Hartford’s company-wide Diversity & Inclusion initiative and on hiring committees and diversity committees.

Jett recently reinvented herself by partnering with her daughter to launch TDS Builders, LLC, one of very few Black women-owned real estate development companies in the country. TDS Builders is managing several major renovation projects throughout Atlanta, and is currently developing a luxury residential community in the southwest side of Atlanta.

Jett earned a BA from Wesleyan University, a JD from Georgetown University Law School, and an MBA in Finance from the University of Connecticut School of Business.

Jerold Mande ’78 BS, MPH (College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources – Saturday, May 4, 6:00 p.m. – Gampel Pavilion)

Jerold Mande is the CEO of Nourish Science and served as Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the US Department of Agriculture, in charge of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, from 2009 to 2011.

Mande has a wealth of expertise and experience in national public health and food policy. He served in senior policymaking positions for three presidents at USDA, FDA, and OSHA, helping lead landmark public health initiatives. In 2009, he was appointed by President Obama as USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety. In 2011, he moved to USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, where he spent six years working to improve the health outcomes of the nation’s $100 billion investment in 15 nutrition programs. During President Clinton’s administration, Mande was Senior Advisor to the FDA commissioner where he helped shape national policy on nutrition, food safety, and tobacco. He also served on the White House staff as a health policy advisor and was Deputy Assistant Secretary for Occupational Health at the Department of Labor. During the George H.W. Bush administration, he led the graphic design of the iconic Nutrition Facts label at FDA, for which he received the Presidential Design Award.

Mande began his career as a legislative assistant for Al Gore in the U.S. House and Senate, managing Gore’s health and environment agenda, and helping Gore write the nation’s organ donation and transplantation laws.

Mande earned a Master’s of Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Bachelor of Science in nutritional science from the University of Connecticut.

Chief Marilynn “Lynn” Malerba ’08 MPA (Doctor of Humane Letters, School of Nursing – Saturday, May 4, 9:00 a.m. – Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts)

Lynn Malerba became the first woman chief of the Mohegan Tribe in modern history in 2010. The position is a lifetime appointment made by the Tribe’s Council of Elders. Prior to becoming Chief, she served as Chairwoman of the Tribal Council, and served in Tribal Government as Executive Director of Health and Human Services. Preceding her work for the Mohegan Tribe, Malerba had a career as a registered nurse, ultimately as the Director of Cardiology and Pulmonary Services at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. She was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in science from Eastern Connecticut State University and an honorary doctoral degree in humane letters from the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. Malerba earned a Doctor of Nursing Practice at Yale University and was named a Jonas Scholar, a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Connecticut, and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the College of St. Joseph.

Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly MSW (School of Social Work – Saturday, May 4, 1:30 p.m. – Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts)

Jodi Hill-Lilly was nominated by Gov. Ned Lamont as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families in December 2023 and subsequently confirmed by the General Assembly. Hill-Lilly has worked at DCF since 1988. Prior to becoming commissioner, she served as the agency’s deputy commissioner of administration in a role that required her to oversee several of its administrative functions, including fiscal services, human resources, workforce development, information systems, multicultural affairs, and systems development. She also led the department’s initiative on racial justice and is responsible for assisting with the development and implementation of policy, training, and coaching on issues related to race and culture throughout the agency and with community partners.

Hill-Lilly also served as DCF’s director of training, in which she was responsible for delivering and providing a multi-faceted training program for employees statewide. She also worked for the agency as a child welfare trainer, an investigations supervisor, and a case management social worker.

Hill-Lilly was one of only 15 fellows and the only child welfare professional to be selected for class 12 of the Annie E. Casey Fellowship program focused on leadership development for administrators in the nonprofit, philanthropic, and public sectors to improve life circumstances of children, youth and families living in low-income communities. She is the co-chair of the National Partnership on Child Safety and is a nationally recognized practice improvement and subject matter expert and consultant including for the Center for States in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, and the American Humane Association.

She earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work from Southern Connecticut State University.

John Bell, Ph.D. (School of Fine Arts – Saturday, May 4, 6:00 p.m. – Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts)

John Bell, Director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at UConn, is a puppeteer and theater historian who began working in puppetry with Bread and Puppet Theater in the 1970s, and continued as a company member for over a decade. He studied theater history at Columbia University, and has since taught at New York University, Rhode Island School of Design, Emerson College and other institutions. He is a founding member of the Brooklyn-based theater company Great Small Works, and the author of many books and articles about puppetry, including Puppets, Masks, and Performing Objects, Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History, and American Puppet Modernism. His wife Trudi Cohen is also a puppeteer and member of Great Small Works. Their son Isaac is studying at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Kelly Ha ’19, ’21 MSW (Bachelor of General Studies – Saturday, May 4, 2:00 p.m. – Student Union Theatre)

Kelly Ha is a licensed social worker and the co-founder of the #IAmNotAVirus campaign, an anti-Asian discrimination and racism awareness movement which came to prominence during the rise of COVID-19, when multiple members of the AAPI community were being targeted. Since then, the campaign received global recognition, created a mental health workbook in collaboration with the UConn AASI department, provided training in corporate and educational settings, and hosted a BIPOC book drive to increase literacy and representation in Connecticut school system. Ha worked on the Make Us Visible movement, which made Connecticut the first state in the country to include AAPI studies in the public school systems with overwhelming bipartisan support. Ha is also the recipient of the 100 Women of Color award and Hartford’s Finest. Ha spoke on the panel for the 2022 Regional Summit on Innovation & Inclusion through the AA & NHPI Lens as part of the White House Initiative.

Ramani Durvasula ’89 MS, Ph.D. (Doctor of Science, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – Sunday, May 5, 9:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. – Gampel Pavilion)

Ramani Durvasula ’89 is a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, Professor Emerita of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and the Founder and CEO of LUNA Education, Training & Consulting. She is an author of several books including “Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving A Relationship with a Narcissist,” and “’Don’t You Know Who I Am?”’: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.” The focus of her clinical, academic and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. Her work has been featured at SXSW, TEDx, Red Table Talk, the Today Show, and Investigation Discovery, among many other outlets and forums.

Maya Moore Irons ’11 (Doctor of Humane Letters, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – Sunday, May 5, 5:30 p.m. – Gampel Pavilion)

Maya Moore Irons is a UConn basketball legend, author, two-time Olympic gold medalist, advocate for social justice, and recently named inductee to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

During her time at UConn, the women’s basketball team won back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010 and Moore was showered with honors, including two selections as the Naismith College Player of the Year and becoming only the third active player to be enshrined among the Huskies of Honor.

Her professional career included four WNBA championships, six all-star selections, and one selection as WNBA Most Valuable Player.

In 2019-20, she took a hiatus from basketball to pursue her advocacy of criminal justice reform, leading to the release of the wrongfully convicted Jonathan Irons from prison in Missouri.

She is the founder of Win With Justice, which advocates criminal justice reform, for which she won the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in 2021.

Kiana Foster-Mauro ’20, ’21 MA (Neag School of Education – Sunday, May 5, 9:00 a.m. – Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts)

Kiana Foster-Mauro ’20, ’21 MA, the 2024 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, is a fourth-grade teacher at Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School in New London.

Foster-Mauro has presented at conferences, nationally and locally. She has been a member of the National Association for Multicultural Education since 2018 and was recently accepted to present on facilitating critical conversations around current events, identity, human rights, and mental health.

While a student at UConn, she served on the executive board of Leadership in Diversity, a student-led organization dedicated to diversifying education.

She is passionate about community and empowering others. She enjoys teaching her students reading, writing, and social studies daily and connecting with former students just down the hall and at her annual classroom family reunion. Outside of the classroom, she extends her commitment to education, diversity, and community as a dance teacher at The Dance Extension and company advisor to the Community Dance Ensemble.

Lauren Aleksunes, Pharm.D, Ph.D. (School of Pharmacy – Pharm.D – Sunday, May 5, 1:30 p.m. – Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts)

Lauren Aleksunes is Professor in the Rutgers University, Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Project Lead of the NJ Alliance for Clinical and Translational Science CTSA Workforce Development Core, and Director of the Joint Graduate Program in Toxicology and the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship. Dr. Aleksunes is also a member of the CounterAct Research Center of Excellence where she Co-Leads the Research Education Core and Pharmacology and Drug Development Core. Within the NIEHS P30 Center for Environmental Exposures and Disease, Dr. Aleksunes is Co-Director of the Environmental/Chemical Pathology Core and Co-Director of Career Development and Mentoring.

Sarah Thompson ’06 Pharm.D (School of Pharmacy – Sunday, May 5, 6:00 p.m. – Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts)

Sarah Thompson ’06 is Chief Clinical Operations Officer and Head of Clinical Operations for Programs at Strategy at Onduo, a Verily Company. Onduo provides a whole-person care solution featuring digital, connected care with a human touch for diabetes, hypertension, weight loss and diabetes prevention. Enabled by technology built by Verily Life Sciences, LLC, we deliver lifestyle and clinical interventions that leverage deep analytics, connected smart devices, innovative software, and access to specialty care through our Virtual Clinic. Onduo was awarded URAC Accreditation in Telemedicine; Onduo LLC headquarters are based in Newton, Mass.

Thompson also holds an MBA from Cornell University.

Daniel Fata ’94 (CLAS) (Doctor of Laws, Graduate School – Masters Ceremony – Monday, May 6, 9:00 a.m. – Gampel Pavilion)

Daniel Fata is the president of Fata Advisory LLC. He is a public policy expert, national security consultant, and strategic adviser focused on helping companies and organizations enhance their product and program offerings through the development of comprehensive government affairs strategies, risk assessments, strategic planning, and advocacy initiatives.

He has more than 25 years of experience working in Congress (as a leadership staffer in both the House and Senate), at the Department of Defense (as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO), in the aerospace and defense industry (as a vice president at Lockheed Martin Corp), and in the consulting arena (as a vice president at the Cohen Group).

He is an expert on issues regarding U.S. national security, government relations, strategic risk, European foreign policy, the global aerospace and defense industry, the industrial base supply chain, technology, and third-party advocacy campaigns, among other issues.

In February 2022, Fata was appointed by the U.S. Senate leadership to serve as one of 16 commissioners on the congressionally mandated Afghanistan War Commission. The commission was established in the FY 2022 National Defense Authorization Act to study the United States’ 20-year involvement in the war in Afghanistan and to assess lessons learned for future conflicts. The commission has a three-year mandate.

Fata has been affiliated with some of the United States’ leading think tanks and nongovernmental organizations and is a regular guest lecturer at leading U.S. colleges and universities He earned his master’s degree in international relations from Boston University.

President Radenka Maric (UConn Health School of Medicine and School of Dental Medicine – Monday, May 6, 1:00 p.m. – Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts)

On September 28, 2022, Radenka Maric was named the 17th president of the University of Connecticut by the Board of Trustees. Prior to that, she had served as UConn’s vice president for research, innovation, and entrepreneurship for five years, starting in 2017.

As president, Dr. Maric has spearheaded new programs to promote interdisciplinary, multi-campus, multi-stakeholder collaborations; and student-focused initiatives designed to strengthen and empower the entire UConn community.

Dr. Maric also holds the rank of Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor and Chair Professor in Sustainable Energy in UConn’s Departments of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Materials Science and Engineering.

Dr. Maric is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Inventors, and the International Association of Advanced Materials, and is an elected member of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.

Dr. Maric is a world leader in technologies for clean energy and sustainability. She has developed innovative manufacturing processes involved in fuel cell technologies, storage materials, and electrochemical sensors for health applications, leading to higher-performance, commercially viable clean energy systems.

Ruth Simmons Ph.D. (Doctor of Humane Letters, Graduate School – Doctoral Ceremony – Monday, May 6, 6:00 p.m. – Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts)

Ruth Simmons served as president of Smith College from 1995 to 2001; Brown University from 2001 to 2012; and Prairie View A&M University from 2017 to 2023.

A French professor before entering university administration, Simmons held an appointment as a Professor of Comparative Literature and Africana Studies at Brown. After completing her Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard, she served in various faculty and administrative roles at the University of Southern California, Princeton University, and Spelman College before becoming president of Smith College, the largest women’s college in the United States. At Smith, she launched a number of important academic initiatives, including an engineering program, the first at an American women’s college.

Under her leadership, Brown made significant strides in improving its standing as one of the world’s finest research universities.

After five years of retirement, she accepted an invitation to become president of Prairie View, an HBCU in her native Texas. Her tenure as president saw significant increases in both scholarships and donations.

Stephen Bright, JD (School of Law – Sunday, May 12, 10:30 a.m. – UConn School of Law)

Stephen Bright is a capital defense lawyer who has argued and won four death penalty cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bright is the Harvey L. Karp Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School, as well as Visiting Associate Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. He recently published “The Fear of Too Much Justice: Race, Poverty, and the Persistence of Inequality in the Criminal Courts” with former UConn Law professor James Kwak.

In addition, Bright and his Supreme Court cases are the subject of the newly-published book by Boston University School of Law’s Robert L. Tsai, “Demand the Impossible: One Lawyer’s Pursuit of Equal Justice for All.” The Court reversed all four cases in favor of Bright’s clients. Three cases involved racial discrimination in jury selection and the fourth involved the right to a mental health expert for an indigent person facing the death penalty.

He served as director of the Southern Center for Human Rights from 1982 to 2005, and as its president and senior counsel from 2006 to 2016. Bright received the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award in 1998.