Sherrilyn Ifill and Penny Lee Dean announced as 2023 Pomona commencement speakers

A person wearing yellow and gray commencement robes stands in front of a podium that reads "Grad." Below that is a decorated graduation cap with "`23" written on top..
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

In a Jan. 31 email to the Pomona College community, President Gabi Starr announced the Commencement speakers for the Class of 2023: civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill and Hall of Fame swimmer Penny Lee Dean PO ’77. The pair will receive honorary degrees and address the graduating class during the Commencement ceremony on May 14, 2023. 

American civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill served as President to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund for over a decade. Through her work at the NAACP,  she has been involved in addressing and influencing a host of national civil rights issues. In 2021, Ifill was recognized on Time’s annual TIME100 list as one of the most influential figures of the year. 

Sherrilyn Ifill was chosen as a compelling legal scholar and national voice for justice on issues such as police reform, voting rights, affirmative action and education,” President Starr told TSL via email. 

Penny Lee Dean, an American marathon swimmer and Pomona College alumna, has broken world records for fastest swims at the Catalina Channel in 1976 and 1977 and the English Channel in 1978, setting 13 world records throughout her career. Dean was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1996, and began her nearly 30-year coaching career for the Pomona-Pitzer swim and water polo teams.

“Penny Lee Dean ’77 was selected as an exemplar of athletic dedication and achievement,” President Starr told TSL via email. “Not only is Dean a world-record-breaking marathon swimmer, she also coached and taught at Pomona for 26 years, making important contributions to our own community as well as the wider sports world.”

Through a lengthy group deliberation process, Ifill and Dean were chosen by a committee of trustees, faculty, students and staff. Candidates for honorary degree recipients are nominated at least two years before the Commencement ceremony by the Honorary Degrees Committee, and are then approved by the Cabinet of the faculty before finally being presented to the full Board of Trustees for approval. 

Honorary degrees, according to the Pomona College guidelines, “allow Pomona College to demonstrate in a very public fashion how [Pomona] values are reflected and exemplified in the character of an individual who has made extraordinary contributions to society.” 

Zaid Al Zoubi PO ’24, Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) Junior Class President, was involved in the selection process. 

“Before [the Committee] meets, they ask us to email our classes to ask for candidates that the class finds appropriate, and then we vote in the committee together,” he said.

ASPC Senior Class President Rohan Ahammed PO ’23 said that the senior class’s unique situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is reflected through the resilience of the chosen speakers. 

“[With] Penny Lee Dean holding so many records and being one of the first most accomplished women at the College in sports, and then Ifill also being groundbreaking in her field, I think both show tenacity in different ways, and I think that [will] resonate with my class,” Ahammed said.

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