Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Named 2011 Commencement Speaker

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard Kennedy School alumna, will be the 2011 Commencement speaker, the University announced today.

“Over the course of her nearly 40 years in public service, President Sirleaf has endured death threats, incarceration, and exile, all the while challenging the inequality, corruption, and violence that defined life in Liberia for so long,” University President Drew G. Faust said in a press release. “We are proud to welcome such a respected African leader and active proponent of democracy to speak on Commencement Day.”

Sirleaf, the 24th president of Liberia, was the first women to be elected the leader of an African nation.

“I think she is an inspired selection,” said Kennedy School Professor R. Nicholas Burns. “She is representative of a new generation of African leaders.”

Burns said he believes that Sirleaf’s selection speaks to the University’s commitment to public service and increasing global focus.

“It is indicative of the fact that we live in a time of a highly global 21st century, and we have to be focused on the world beyond Cambridge,” Burns said.

Burns said that the increasing internationalization of the student body also demonstrates this trend.

“As Africa’s first female elected head of state, she stands as an example for a generation of girls in Africa and beyond of the ways in which education opens new frontiers,” Faust said.

As president, Sirleaf has worked to stabilize and unify Liberia, which has been wracked with civil war for the past two decades.

Sirleaf was raised in Monrovia, Liberia and emigrated to the U.S. in 1961. She studied economics and accounting at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the University of Colorado, Boulder. An Edward S. Mason Fellow, Sirleaf earned her mid-career Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School in 1971.

In 1972, Sirleaf returned to Liberia where she served as a government official until a military coup forced her to flee the country.

Two decades later, Sirleaf made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1997. In 2003, Sirleaf assumed a position in the Liberian government and won the nation’s presidential election in 2005.

“President Sirleaf is a prime example of an alumna who has embraced the ethic of public service and improved life for millions through her commitment to serving the public good,” said Robert R. Bowie Jr., president of the Harvard Alumni Association, in the press release.

“Her career is a reminder of the global reach of the graduates of Harvard and the importance of the University’s international engagement.”

1997. In 2003, Sirleaf assumed a position in the Liberian government and won the nation’s presidential election in 2005.

“President Sirleaf is a prime example of an alumna who has embraced the ethic of public service and improved life for millions through her commitment to serving the public good,” said Robert R. Bowie Jr., president of the Harvard Alumni Association, in the press release. “Her career is a reminder of the global reach of the graduates of Harvard and the importance of the University’s international engagement.”

—Staff writer Tara W. Merrigan can be reached at tmerrigan@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff Writer Zoe A. Y. Weinberg can be reached at zoe.weinberg@college.harvard.edu.

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