• Honorary Degrees

    Each year, The New School awards honorary degrees to individuals who exemplify the interests and ambitions of the graduating class. As part of our Commencement ceremony, celebrated figures are heralded for their unique contributions and formally decreed members of this scholarly community.

    Award recipients embody the university’s driving principles of academic freedom, tolerance, and creative experimentation. Like our students and alumni, New School honorary degree holders have included many bold innovators whose work across disciplines has addressed important contemporary issues.

    To see the list of past recipients, click here.

    With such a remarkable range of honorees, The New School is taking a nontraditional approach to the commencement speaker format. Each honoree has been invited to briefly address the graduates, sharing insights and advice from her unique vantage point.

    Barbara Hillary

    Barbara Hillary


    Barbara Hillary is the first African-American woman to reach both the North and the South Poles, something she accomplished in her 70s and after having survived cancer. Ms. Hillary grew up in Harlem. She earned her BA and MA at The New School, where she studied gerontology, and pursued a career in nursing.

    After surviving lung cancer and a surgery that caused her to lose 25 percent of her breathing capacity at age 67, Ms. Hillary retired from nursing and turned to traveling. While exploring Canada, Ms. Hillary learned that there was no record of an African-American woman having been to the North Pole and decided to change that. In 2007, at age 72, she became the oldest person and the first African-American woman to make the journey. Five years later, she visited the South Pole. She remains the only African-American to have visited both poles.

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    Ms. Hillary founded The Peninsula Magazine, a nonprofit multiracial magazine, and served as its editor-in-chief. A community activist, Ms. Hillary founded the Arverne Action Association, Inc., a group dedicated to improving life in Arverne, New York, and the Rockaway Peninsula Community. She also lectures about the dangerous effects of global warming, which she has experienced firsthand during her travels.

    Ms. Hillary has won numerous awards, including a Special Citation from the U.S. House of Representatives, the Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women, and Special Acknowledgement from The Explorers Club, and has been awarded lifetime memberships to the Frederick A. Cook Society, the National Rifle Association, and the Wildlife Alliance.

    Ai-jen Poo

    Ai-jen Poo

    Ai-jen Poo is a labor activist and organizer who has spent her life fighting on behalf of domestic workers and older people. Ms. Poo first got involved as a student activist in 1996 while at Columbia University. A member of the Women Workers Project at the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, she was part of the group that successfully pushed for the creation of the university’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. After graduating, Poo took up the cause of one of the most underrepresented labor forces — domestic employees.

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    In 2000, Ms. Poo co-founded Domestic Workers United (DWU) to advocate for the rights of nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers to older people. Aware that many caretakers are undocumented immigrants, Poo moved to help workers avoid exploitation. She served as their head organizer, and in 2010, under her leadership, the DWU successfully fought to ensure that New York State passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, the first of its kind in the country. The bill protects workers’ rights to an eight-hour workday with overtime pay and guaranteed rest days and offers mandated protection under the state’s human rights laws, including protection against sexual and racial harassment.

    The same year, Ms. Poo joined the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and took on the role of director, which she still holds. In 2011, Ms. Poo launched the Caring Across Generations campaign, which brings awareness to the way we as a country care for children, older people, and people with disabilities. She currently serves as the campaign’s co-director. In 2015, Ms. Poo released her first book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America, which reflects on the importance of the relationship between families and professional caregivers.

    Ms. Poo was the recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Genius Grant, and in 2012, she was named to Newsweek’s list of 150 Women Who Shake the World and as one of TIME magazine’s TIME 100. She has also been named one of the 40 Under 40 by both Crain’s and the Feminist Press and has received numerous other accolades and fellowships.

    Anna Sui

    Diana von Furstenberg

    Anna Sui is an American fashion designer known for her blend of vintage, glamour, and cutting-edge style. Her boundless appetite for culture is reflected in her designs and her uniquely curated, unparalleled runway shows. She currently has more than 50 boutiques in eight countries and has also launched successful cosmetics, fragrance, shoe, and accessory lines.

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    Ms. Sui became interested in fashion as a four-year-old growing up in Detroit. She attended Parsons School of Design and quickly started designing for several sportswear companies. Determined to make a name for herself, Ms. Sui began her own company in her living room and, in 1992, opened her first retail store in SoHo. The same year, she was recognized by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) with the Perry Ellis Award for New Talent.

    Ms. Sui was named one of the Top 5 Fashion Icons of the Decade by TIME magazine. A dexterous and versatile designer, Ms. Sui has collaborated on design products for several well-known companies, such as Samsung, Google, Anthropologie, Mattel, Starbucks, and Nissan. An advocate for Made in the USA, she designs and manufactures her signature collection in New York City’s Garment Center. She has also partnered with various charities, including the World Wildlife Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and the Bowery Mission, and regularly gives lectures around the United States and the rest of the world, aiming to inspire students to pursue their dreams no matter what they are.

    In 2009, Ms. Sui was awarded the Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award by the CFDA. Other awards she has received include the Bravo A-List Award and the Classic Icon of Fashion and Design Identities Leadership in the Arts Award. She will be featured in a retrospective exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum titled The World of Anna Sui, opening May 2017.

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