When institutions of higher education award honorary degrees during commencement, the recipients are chosen in large part based on their ability to inspire graduates to go forth and make a meaningful difference in the greater world. Volodymyr Zelenskyy meets and exceeds this threshold. As such, 25 American colleges and universities intend to award Zelenskyy an honoring degree this spring – including Alfred University, the institution that I am honored to lead.
Zelenskyy’s leadership of Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s unprovoked aggression demonstrates traits we hope to instill in our students during their brief time with us: dedication and perseverance, courage and integrity, and empathy in the face of overwhelming challenges.
Knowing Zelenskyy’s message would resonate with today’s college graduates, I wrote to Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States on March 19, asking if Zelenskyy could speak virtually to our graduates at Alfred University along with the other institutions recognizing him. The collective gesture was motivated by the Ukrainian leader’s moving leadership that has inspired his people and the broader world to defend the principles of freedom and democracy.
Ultimately, an official at the Ukrainian embassy graciously declined the speaking request. Understandably Zelenskyy has been busy leading his nation’s resistance to a brutal Russian invasion.
An Alfred University alumna, Beryl Torthe (’18), suggested that the honorary degree still could be awarded to Zelenskyy in his absence. Based on Beryl’s idea, we pursued a broader effort to honor President Zelenskyy and on behalf of the citizens of Ukraine by reaching out to counterparts at colleges and universities throughout the Greater Rochester area. The region is home to over 40,000 individuals of Ukrainian descent, and we want to urge them to consider jointly offering him honorary degrees in his absence.
The idea was well-received by other schools in the Rochester area, and spread to additional institutions, first throughout upstate New York and then in other states.
Today, 25 higher education institutions in five states—a number that continues to increase—have agreed to jointly offer honorary degrees to Zelenskyy. (You can find the full list of universities here.) We believe that this will be the first time in history that multiple colleges and universities have jointly offered honorary degrees.
However, we know that the symbolism of an honorary degree only does so much, and our consortium of higher education institutions has committed themselves to assist the citizens of Ukraine in many other ways. We have facilitated efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian citizens, offered scholarship support for Ukrainians interested in pursuing their higher education studies, and educated our campus communities as to what is at stake.
At Alfred University, we have admitted and offered scholarship support to three applicants from Ukraine to join us for their undergraduate studies this fall. We look forward to receiving additional applications while raising further philanthropic support for scholarships for such worthy prospective students.
It has been beyond uplifting to see how readily these higher education institutions have responded to the idea of jointly offering honorary degrees to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. It illustrates how Zelenskyy and the citizens of Ukraine have galvanized us all to do whatever we can to help their cause. Given the role colleges and universities play in promoting the rights of individuals and liberal society, adding our voice in support of the Ukrainian cause is a meaningful way that we can put our shoulders to the wheel.