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February 23, 2011

Legendary Oceanographer Sylvia Earle to Deliver 2011 Commencement Address

Honorary degrees will be awarded to Earle, Former Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice  Margaret Marshall, Sri Lanka Supreme Court Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane and photographer and artist Carrie Mae Weems.

Sylvia EarleNORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Sylvia Earle, the undersea explorer dubbed a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, will be the speaker at Smith College’s 133rd commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 15, at 10 a.m. in the campus Quadrangle. Earle and three other accomplished women will receive honorary degrees prior to the address.

Today, Earle is the Explorer in Residence at National Geographic Society, but in the early 1950s, she was a newly relocated teen learning scuba diving in Clearwater, Fla. Fascinated by marine life, Earle became determined to catalogue every species of plant in the Gulf of Mexico.

When her family was unable to afford her college education, Earle earned scholarships to enroll at the Florida State University. After securing a bachelor’s degree, she went on to receive her master’s and doctoral degrees from Duke University. She began her career first as a research fellow at Harvard University then as the resident director of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory.

Since then, Earle has led more than 70 expeditions, logging more than 6,500 hours under water. Her journeys include commanding the first team of women aquanauts on a research expedition in which they lived for two weeks in 1970 in a small structure on the ocean floor off the Virgin Islands.

Throughout that decade, scientific missions had Earle crisscrossing the globe, from Hawaii to New Zealand, China to Australia, South America, Bermuda and Alaska. In 1979, Earle walked untethered on the sea floor at a lower depth than any living human being before or since. The exploration off of the island of Oahu lasted more than two and a half hours, during which she had no connection with the world above. She later described the experience in her 1980 book “Exploring the Deep Frontier.”

At various turns, Earle’s accomplishments have made her the celebrity of a ticker-tape parade and White House reception, and led to her appointment as chief scientist of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1992, she founded Deep Ocean Exploration and Research to further advance marine engineering. When interviewed by The Guardian last year, Earle noted simply, “I breathe so I dive.”

In addition to Earle, the following women will receive honorary degrees from Smith on May 15:

Margaret H. Marshall
Former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
In a lifetime spent promoting civil rights and broadening access to justice, particularly for the underprivileged, Margaret Marshall not only delivered groundbreaking decisions on the bench but also advanced understanding of the judicial process and improved the court system itself. Motivated by the repression and racism she witnessed while growing up in her native country of South Africa, Marshall came to this country in 1968 to study law, first at Harvard University, then at Yale. After working as a partner in several Boston law firms, she eventually became the vice president and general counsel of Harvard. In 1999 she was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court bench—the first woman to hold that position on the 318-year-old appellate court, which is the oldest in the nation. Not one to shy away from controversy, she rendered more than 300 decisions on challenging issues in family law, criminal matters, civil rights and commercial and financial conflicts. In an important expansion of civil rights in 2003, she presided over Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, in which the SJC approved same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. “The Rule of Law, enforced by independent judges, is central to any democracy,” she wrote in her retirement letter to the governor in 2010. “It is an ideal to which I have devoted my life.”

Shiranee Tilakawardane
Supreme Court Justice in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
Known as a “peace-builder,” Shiranee Tilakawardane was the first woman appointed as Court of Appeal judge in her country, having previously served as a high court judge and an admiralty court judge. Now a justice on the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, Tilakawardane focuses her efforts in the areas of equality, gender education and child rights. “If there is no equality, there is inequality; and where there is inequality, there is always discrimination and oppression,” said Tilakawardane in an interview with the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University. From 2001 to 2003, she was one of ten Brandeis International Fellows who participated in a series of three one-week institutes over an 18-month period, exploring topics such as human rights, intervention and international law. Tilakawardane has been active in Sakshi of India’s gender workshops for judges, the Asia Pacific Forum for Gender Education for Judges, and the International Panel of Judges for the Child Rights Bureau. She received an award from a national child protection authority in Sri Lanka for her work on behalf of abused children. Tilakawardane also served as chairperson of a presidential commission investigating corruption in the purchase of arms and services by the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Carrie Mae Weems
Photographer and Artist
During her early 20s, Carrie Mae Weems was a union organizer, employing her first camera for politics rather than for art. She was inspired to pursue photography after she came across “The Black Photography Annual,” a book of images by African-Americans. Weems attended the California Institute of the Arts and went on to earn her master’s of fine arts degree in photography from the University of California, San Diego. During nearly three decades since, Weems has developed a complex body of art that employs photographs, text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation and video to convey stories. From her earliest photography series “Family Pictures and Stories,” through increasingly layered works such as “Ain’t Jokin’,” “Colored People,” and the “Kitchen Table” series, Weems has intertwined themes as she has found them in life. Her work conveys ideas about race, gender, cultural identity and history. Recently, Weems undertook her first video endeavor, “Coming Up for Air,” which was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In addition to the recognition Weems has achieved exhibiting her work in museums throughout the country, she has been honored with numerous residencies. “Throughout it all it has been my contention that my responsibility as an artist is … to shout bravely from the roof-tops and storm barricaded doors,” she notes.

Smith College educates women of promise for lives of distinction. One of the largest women’s colleges in the United States, Smith enrolls 2,800 students from nearly every state and 62 other countries.

For information about disability access or to request accommodations to the commencement ceremony, call (413) 585-2407. To request a sign language interpreter specifically, call (413) 585-2071 (voice or TTY) or e-mail All requests must be made at least 10 days prior to the event.

Office of College Relations
Smith College
Garrison Hall
Northampton, Massachusetts 01063

Kristen Cole
Media Relations Director
T (413) 585-2190
F (413) 585-2174

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