Four alums receive Bicentennial Medals

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President Mandel gives yearly awards at convocation.

September 7 marked Convocation for this year’s senior class and candidates for advanced degrees, commemorating the beginning of a new academic school year in Chapin Hall. The celebratory event featured speeches from President Maud S. Mandel and Chaplain to the College Valerie Bailey Fischer, and music from Zambezi, the Williams Convocation Brass Ensemble and Ben Mygatt ’20 and Jeff Pearson ’20.

The event was not only focused on current students, but also on four of the college’s most accomplished alumni; Dr. Kiat Tan ’65, Dr. Martin Samuels ’67, Danielle Deane-Ryan ’97, and Carina Vance Mafla ’99 were awarded the Bicentennial Medal by Mandel and the Society of Alumni in recognition of their “distinguished achievement in any field of endeavor.” The medal has been given to between four and seven recipients annually since 1993, the 200th anniversary of the College’s founding.

Tan, the first alum to be presented with the medal this year, is a prominent figure in the field of horticulture. Two decades after graduating from the College, Tan rejected a job offer from Walt Disney World and instead moved back to his home of Singapore to dedicate his talents to improving the city’s gardens. 

Over the course of his career, he restored Singapore’s Botanic Gardens and created the Gardens by the Bay, a nature park which has since become one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. In Mandel’s words, Tan helped make his home “a place where wonder blooms.” 

Following Tan, Mandel awarded the Bicentennial medal to Samuels, a neurologist whose career has spanned three decades. Samuels, who is currently a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, was the founding chair emeritus of the Department of Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Mandel also touched upon the clinical research, textbooks, and electronic journals that Samuels has contributed to his field.

Deane-Ryan, currently the director of the Inclusive Clean Energy Program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, was the third to receive the Bicentennial medal. Deane-Ryan’s career has been devoted to the intersections of race and environmental policy and fighting for diversity in mainstream environmental organizations.

In addition to her role at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Deane-Ryan is the former the senior advisor for external affairs at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, and was a founding director of the Green 2.0 initiative. Mandel applauded Deane-Ryan’s “unshakeable commitment to ensuring that communities of color take the lead” in pursuing environmental justice.

Finally, Vance Mafla was awarded the medal for her work as Ecuador’s Minister for Public Health. During her tenure, Vance Mafla advocated for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, shutting down anti-gay religious health clinics that engaged in physical violence while opening 52 new health centers and 10 hospitals. 

Since her time in the Ecuadorian government, Vance Mafla has been the executive director of the South American Institute of Government in Health, a public health organization associated with the Union of South American Nations. Mandel credited Vance Mafla with “advancing public health throughout the continent.”

The Bicentennial Medal recipients were not the only ones to be honored at Convocation. Ellie Sherman ’20 received the Grosvenor Cup for her “tireless and thoughtfully optimistic dedication to the College.” The award, presented by Vice President for Campus Life Stephen Klass, is given annually to one senior selected by the previous year’s College Council executive board. Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom announced the 31 junior year inductees to Phi Beta Kappa from the class of 2020.

Following the award presentations, Samuels returned to the podium to give the year’s Convocation address. “Williams is one of those places that can change and stay the same,” he began, reminiscing on his time at the college. Speaking from the perspective of neurology, his native field, Samuels encouraged the class to remain iconoclastic and make an effort to see through others’ perspectives.

In his wide-ranging address, Samuels spoke at length on invaders from Mars, also touching on subjects including President James Garfield ’56, Iraq War protesters, and the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It was with Burns’ quote that he concluded: “Oh would some power the gift give us / To see ourselves as others see us.”