Julia Alvarez ’71 to Deliver May Commencement Address

By Joe Flaherty

Novelist, poet and College writer-in-residence Julia Alvarez ’71 will deliver this year’s commencement address. Alvarez, along with four others, will receive an honorary degree at the May 24 ceremony.

Alvarez is the acclaimed author of novels, essays and books, including In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts — the highest honor given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government — by President Obama in 2013. In addition to writing, Alvarez and her husband run a sustainable coffee farm and literacy center called Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic.

President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz said in an interview, “Julia has inspired generations. As a writer-in-residence, she has touched so many individuals in the area of creative writing and expression of one’s own self.” 

Alvarez was the first Middlebury graduate to do a creative writing thesis in poetry. She credits faculty members such as C. A. Dana Professor of English & American Literatures David Price and Robert Pack, the poet, faculty member and longtime director of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, for supporting her early writing efforts.

Alvarez said in an interview that she relishes the opportunity to speak to a graduating class at an institution that means a great deal to her.

“It’s very touching to be there with a class that is about to set out on the journey that I am looking back on now,” Alvarez said. “They’re saying goodbye to a certain kind of connection to the College, but this place remains under your skin and in your bloodstream, I think.”

Alvarez and her family fled the Dominican Republic when she was 10 to escape the regime of Rafael Trujillo.

In addition to graduating from the College, Alvarez has taught at Middlebury since 1988 and in 1998 transitioned from her tenured position to become writer-in-residence. She holds a master’s in creative writing from Syracuse University. Additionally, Alvarez has frequented the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Bread Loaf School of English.

 “The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Bread Loaf School of English — I had been trying to get back here ever since I graduated,” Alvarez explained. “So I took the job [in 1988] and here I am.”

Liebowitz also noted Alvarez’s longtime affiliation with the College. “She is an inspiration to a whole host of creative undergraduates here at Middlebury,” he said.

Alvarez, who said she anticipates departing her writer-in-residence position within the next year, sees her address as an opportunity to say goodbye to the College.  

“I’m a storyteller — I like shapely stories, and I love the idea that this is my chance to say goodbye to the place that has been my home for so long,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez will receive a Doctor of Letters degree. The other honorary degree recipients will be biologist Martin Chalfie, violinist Hilary Hahn, principal Christina Johnston and political theorist Eric Nelson. Liebowitz said that selecting educators to receive the honorary degrees was an intentional theme for the ceremony.

“All of the honorary degree recipients are educators in their own right,” Liebowitz said. 

Martin Chalfie, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry along with Roger Tsien and Osamu Shimomura, will receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree. Chalfie is a Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University and visited the College on October 16 to give two lectures on his work on green fluorescent protein. 

 “Chalfie is a remarkable advocate for undergraduate science education,” Liebowitz said. “He enjoys teaching undergraduates, which is highly unusual for a Nobel Prize winner.”

Violinist Hilary Hahn will receive a Doctor of Arts degree. A virtuosic musician, Hahn has performed in over 40 countries. In addition to winning three Grammys, Hahn also attended the Middlebury Language Schools, studying German, French and Japanese.  

“She educates us all about raising our artistic spirits,” Liebowitz said.

Christina Johnston, the principal of Weybridge Elementary School, will receive a Doctor of Education degree. Liebowitz praised her pioneering efforts in science, language instruction, and design-based learning during her tenure leading the local school for the past 20 years.

Robert M. Beren Professor of Government at Harvard University Eric Nelson will receive a Doctor of Laws degree. Nelson visited the College to deliver the 2013 John Hamilton Fulton Lecture in the Liberal Arts, a lecture titled “The Lord Alone Shall Be King of America: Hebraism and the Republican Turn of 1776.”

Liebowitz said Nelson is “very well respected, has written three terrific books and is a marvelous political theorist today.”

The commencement ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. on May 24.