Columbia has announced that it will recognize five honorary degree recipients at the two ceremonies for Commencement on May 15.

On Monday, April 8, Columbia announced that it will confer honorary degrees to five recipients, including Kizzmekia S. Corbett-Helaire, Zvi Galil, Barney S. Graham, Robert Reffkin, and Darren Walker. Reffkin will receive the University Medal of Excellence, while the four remaining recipients will be awarded honorary doctorates. The awardees will accept the honors across the two Commencement ceremonies being held this year to accommodate the larger number of graduates and guests. 

Robert Reffkin, University Medal for Excellence

Reffkin founded Compass in 2012, which has grown to one of the top-ranking real estate brokerage companies in the United States, achieving half a trillion in sales to date. Reffkin received both his BA and MBA from Columbia University and has had experience working at both McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, in addition to a tenure as a White House Fellow. 

Additionally, Reffkin is an avid marathon runner and has raised $1 million for charities including his own, America Needs You, which aims to empower first-generation college students. He is donating all profits from his book No One Succeeds Alone to nonprofits benefiting young people achieving success in their aspirations. 

Kizzmekia S. Corbett-Helaire, Doctor of Science

Corbett-Helaire is an immunologist, vaccinologist, and an assistant professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Freeman Hrabowski Scholar. 

As the scientific lead on the development of a vaccine to combat COVID-19 when at the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), her team and Moderna developed mRNA-1273, the first COVID-19 vaccine worldwide to enter clinical trial. Pfizer, Novavax, and Johnson & Johnson all use her patented technology in their vaccines.

With over 15 years of experience studying the dengue virus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza virus, and coronaviruses, Corbett-Helaire has an extensive patent portfolio to date. She also has a passion for mentorship, particularly in underserved communities where she advocates for STEM education and vaccine awareness.

Corbett-Helaire received her BS from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and her PhD from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She has been awarded the Fullbright Prize, the Sabin Vaccine Institute Rising Star Award, and the Benjamin Franklin NextGen Award. 

Zvi Galil, Doctor of Letters

Galil, the former Dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Computing and former President of Tel Aviv University, is a longtime faculty member of Columbia University. He has previously served as Chair of the Computer Science Department and as Dean of Columbia Engineering. Galil’s research is focused on string matching, graph algorithms, complexity, and cryptography. 

Columbia established the Zvi Galil Award for student life back in 2008 to honor Galil’s contributions to Columbia Engineering, naming him a recipient of the Great Teacher Award the following year. During his time at Columbia, Galil oversaw the naming of the Columbia Engineering School and the creation of the Biomedical Engineering Department.

An advocate of distance learning programs, he helped to create the Georgia Tech College of Computing’s Online Master of Science in Computer Science and currently serves as the Frederick G. Storey Chair in Computing and Executive Advisor to Online Programs at Georgia Tech.

Galil received his BS and MS degrees from Tel Aviv University and his PhD from Cornell University. He has a previous honorary Doctor of Mathematics from the University of Waterloo.

Barney S. Graham, Doctor of Science

Graham is a noted immunologist, virologist, and clinical trials physician. Known for his research in vaccine development, he retired as Deputy Director of the NIAID Vaccine Research Center at NIH in 2021. Graham is now an independent consultant and Professor of Medicine and Microbiology, Biochemistry, & Immunology, as well as Director of the David Satcher Global Health Equity Institute, at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA.

The author of over 500 scientific publications, his area of expertise is on emerging viral diseases and pandemic preparedness. He has worked on vaccines and monoclonal antibodies for HIV, Ebola, and Chikungunya, and has developed novel vaccines for RSV, influenza, Zika, paramyxoviruses, and coronaviruses. 

Graham received his BS from Rice University, MD from the University of Kansas, and PhD from Vanderbilt University. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he has received many awards for his work.

Darren Walker, Doctor of Laws

Walker is the current president of the Ford Foundation, a $16 billion foundation that aims to promote international social justice philanthropy. Under Walker, Ford issued a $1 billion designated social bond to stabilize non-profits in the wake of COVID-19. 

Walker has had previous experience as the VP of the Rockefeller Foundation, COO of the Abyssinian Development Corporation (Harlem’s largest community development organization), and the co-founder of both the US Impact Investing Alliance and the Presidents’ Council of the Disability and Philanthropy Forum. He also serves on several boards such as Carnegie Hall and the Museum of African American History and Culture.

An advocate for public education, Walker received his BA, BS, and JD degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the recipient of 16 past honorary degrees, France’s Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres due to his arts leadership, and was appointed by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II to the Order of the British Empire for services regarding UK/US relations.

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