Three distinguished professionals receiving honorary degrees will accompany CBS correspondent Andy Rooney in addressing graduates at the May 22 Commencement.
Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibarguen, Army medical researcher and doctor Philip Russell and Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Mildred Dresselhaus will each speak for a few minutes at the ceremony on the Ellipse.
"It's an interesting group of people," University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said in an interview last month. "Any one of those people you'd be happy to have dinner with."
In a change from past years, none of the four speakers are GW alumni, though Rooney's granddaughter is a graduating senior.
The only former GW student scheduled to take center stage at Commencement this year is Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who graduated from the GW School of Law in 1964 and will be the school's speaker this year.
Trachtenberg said having a Commencement speaker who is a GW graduate is "fortuitous, not an obligatory thing."
Publisher of The Miami Herald and its Spanish counterpart, El Nuevo Herald, Alberto Ibarguen started as a newspaper executive in 1984, working at two papers in the Northeast.
"It's an extraordinary honor that I'm really very, very proud to receive," Ibarguen said in an interview with The Hatchet. "And to be perfectly honest to you, since (GW) rejected me from ... (its) law school, there was a great irony."
Ibarguen, who got his bachelor's from Wesleyan College in Middletown, Conn., said his liberal arts education was a very formative part of his life. It taught him how to think methodically, a talent he said helped him while doing humanitarian work in South America.
"I grew up in South Orange, New Jersey ... and the Peace Corps sends me to work in the Amazon Federal Territory, and what got me through was my great liberal education," he said. "To ask, to connect the dots, to always ask questions ... My success there was due to the education that I received."
Ibarguen, who will assume the presidency of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a philanthropic organization, in September, has continued humanitarian work in South America through The Herald. For the last seven years, the paper has investigated the murder of journalists throughout Latin America.
"It raises the awareness of doing journalism in the hemisphere," he said of his paper's ad campaign to protect reporters abroad. "This is something that's been a real passion for me, given where I live and where I work, and given how much we take for granted that 35 minutes from here (working in Cuba) is such a dangerous job - here I just get yelled at."
In the movie "Outbreak," in which Dustin Hoffman, Cuba Gooding Jr. and other characters try to stop the spread of a deadly virus brought over by an African monkey, Russell would be the lead general if he still had his old Army position.
"That movie was awful, just terrible," said Russell, former commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command. "It had no relationship to reality at all."
His days in the Army Medical Corps for more than 30 years lacked the drama of quarantining virus-ridden towns within the United States, but Russell spent years in epidemiological laboratories in Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam. His overseas work included clinical research on malaria, hepatitis and hemorrhagic fever.
He said he wants to make clear during his brief speech how "incredibly rewarding" a life in public service can be.
"The best jobs are the ones that have an opportunity to make a difference in the world," Russell said. "And it has to be fun, you've got be turned on by your work, and if the job isn't fun and isn't going to make a difference do something else."
Russell has contributed to more than 100 research publications in his field and has been involved with the development of the hepatitis A and B and meningitis vaccines. Despite this laundry list of accomplishments, he has never received an honorary degree.
After D.C. politicians were targeted with anthrax-laced envelopes in 2001, Russell led a Department of Health and Human Services taskforce to stockpile treatments and vaccines against many bio-terrorism agents.
Russell has also worked with GW professor Peter Hotez to develop viral vaccines and further research on the Human Hookworm Vaccine Initiative.
Mildred Dresselhaus, a professor at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., is no stranger to honorary degrees and awards.
Having received about two-dozen honorary doctorates in science and the National Medal of Science, Dresselhaus has built an impressive reputation during her nearly 45 years at MIT.
She has co-authored four books on carbon science and has conducted extensive research in the field of solid-state physics.
"I started thinking (as a child) I was going to be a school teacher," she said. "But as I moved through the academic pattern, I met teachers and they encouraged me to specialize in the sciences."
Through her nearly half-century of advanced research in physics, Dresselhaus said she found herself surrounded by men, many of whom viewed women as intrinsically less suited for science. Harvard President Lawrence Summers came under fire earlier this year for suggesting that men were naturally better suited to study math and science.
"I didn't have a choice of being a man or woman and being in science," Dresselhaus said. "So I pursued science like everyone else because I liked it and had some aptitude for it."
"There are already large numbers of women in science and it's increasing every year, and they are successful at it," she added. "I'm very optimistic."
Dresselhaus serves as chair of the governing board of the American Institute of Physics. She previously acted as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society.