ALFRED, NY (May 14, 2022) – At its 186th Commencement ceremony Saturday, May 14, Alfred University awarded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy an honorary degree, in absentia, in recognition of his leadership during his nation’s months-long battle against invading Russian forces.
Alfred University awarded Zelenskyy the degree Doctor of Humane Letter, honoris causa. Alfred is one of 27 universities and colleges in five states to award Zelenskyy the degree during their respective commencement exercises, and effort that was spearheaded by Alfred University President Mark Zupan.
Alfred University alumnus and Board of Trustees member Eric Bershad ’69, whose family is from Ukraine, introduced Zelenskyy for conferral of the honorary degree, in absentia. Bershad lauded the Ukrainian leader for the leadership and courage he showed in the face of the Russian military attacks on his country. He noted that Zelenskyy was made several offers of safe passage from Ukraine as the conflict in his country worsened; each time he declined.
“While his country was under siege, President Zelenskyy decided to stay. He did not flee; nor did he freeze. He rallied his people to mobilize against the Russian invasion,” Bershad said.
“He worked 24 hours a day to rally support from around the world,” with several nations providing resources—including weaponry and defense equipment. “We hope these resources will allow (Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people) to continue to defend their country.”
The move to award Zelenskyy an honorary degree began on March 19, when Zupan wrote to Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, asking if Zelenskyy could speak virtually to the graduating Class of 2022 and their campus communities at a combination of higher education institutions including Alfred University.
In addition to requesting Zelenskky address Alfred University’s graduating students, Zupan pursued a broader effort to honor Zelenskyy’s courageous leadership, which has served as a global inspiration. He began reaching out to his counterparts at colleges and universities throughout the Greater Rochester area, which is home to a significant population of citizens of Ukrainian descent.
Ultimately, an official at the Ukrainian embassy graciously declined the speaking request; Zelenskyy, after all, had been busy for more than five weeks leading his nation’s resistance to a brutal Russian invasion.
An Alfred University alumna, Beryl Torthe ’18, suggested to Zupan that the honorary degrees could be awarded to Zelenskyy in absentia. Her suggestion was pivotal to the endeavor being launched, Zupan said of Torthe, who was one of two Marlin Miller Outstanding Senior award recipients in 2018.
The idea was well received by other schools in the Rochester area, and spread to other institutions, first throughout Upstate New York and then in other states.
The higher education institutions which are participating in the endeavor include Alfred University, Bard College, Canisius College, Cazenovia College, Dominican College, Elmira College, Hilbert College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Keuka College, Le Moyne College, Rochester Institute of Technology, Utica University, and Villa Maria College in New York; Adrian College and Siena Heights University, Michigan; Lenoir-Rhyne University, North Carolina; Alvernia University, Arcadia University, Chatham University, Duquesne University, Gratz College, Holy Family University, Manor College, Salus University and York College, Pennsylvania; and Shenandoah University and Virginia Wesleyan University, Virginia.
Bershad advised graduating students to take a lesson from Zelenskyy’s actions. “I hope you can each learn to make a difference in your own way,” he said.
Alfred University has offered admission to three Ukrainian students who wish to continue their higher education in the U.S and continues to review other applicants from Ukraine. Bershad noted the students will be granted full four-year academic scholarships to attend the University.
Caption: Eric Bershad ’69 introduces Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, recipient of an honorary degree, in absentia.