Wellesley’s highest honor is given annually to graduates of distinction who through their achievements have brought honor to themselves and the College. This year’s recipients are Joan Wallace-Benjamin ’75, M. Darby Dyar ’80, and Kimberly Dozier ’87. In lieu of an in-person awards ceremony, the recipients will participate in a virtual conversation with President Paula A. Johnson on Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. et (visit wellesley.edu/events to join) and Zoom class visits with students.
Joan Wallace-Benjamin ’75
Leadership on the Ground
Among the many highlights of her 37-year career as a nonprofit executive, one was particularly resonant for Joan Wallace-Benjamin ’75 during the summer of 2020. For weeks, the country’s attention had been riveted on protests calling for racial justice, and the turmoil reminded her of a similar moment when she was president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, a 100-year-old nonprofit aimed at improving the lives of urban residents, particularly people of color.
It was the spring of 1992, and Los Angeles was aflame following the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, a Black man. Meanwhile, in Boston, Wallace-Benjamin and two other community leaders held a press conference before a packed high school gymnasium to release a list of actions civic leaders could take to ease simmering racial tensions in their own city. “Just as an advocacy move, it was brilliant,” she remembers. “It hit all the right notes at all the right times.”
The list, dubbed “The Ten Demandments,” called for the appointment of an African American district attorney and the establishment of a civilian review board for the Boston Police Department. “We weren’t asking for crazy things,” Wallace-Benjamin says. “We were asking for things that had been on the drawing board but that languished month after month. We used the concern around the incendiary nature of this issue to move it.”
“It was the first time in my career that funders called and said, ‘I have to give you money. How much do you need?’” she says.
It might have been the first time someone volunteered to write her a blank check, but it was far from the only time Wallace-Benjamin used a masterstroke to advance an organization she served. Her transformative leadership has been a common thread running through her management of a variety of organizations that serve vulnerable children and marginalized communities—including Head Start, the Boys & Girls Clubs, and the Home for Little Wanderers.
She has always felt a commitment to work within communities of color. “I think of myself as a really proud civil rights beneficiary,” she says. “I have been blessed with a superior education at every level, so I have great skills to offer and I always felt like I should be bringing that back into the African American community, because it was that community that made it possible for me to be where I am.”
Wallace-Benjamin was raised in Queens, New York, the daughter of a health-care executive and a public school teacher. Education and civil rights were extremely important to her parents, who both had advanced degrees and participated in the 1963 March on Washington. When it came time for college, she was accepted at all of the Seven Sisters (plus Swarthmore) but chose Wellesley because of its beautiful campus and its “very active and large population of African American women.” After being one of only a handful of students of color at Woodmere, a private secondary school on Long Island, “it was like I’d died and gone to heaven,” she says.
‘I think of myself as a really proud civil rights beneficiary. I have been blessed with a superior education at every level, so I have great skills to offer and I always felt like I should be bringing that back into the African American community because it was that community that made it possible for me to be where I am.’
She majored in psychology at Wellesley and then completed a Ph.D. at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, but after working for a year in clinical research at Abt Associates in Boston, she knew research and academia were not her future. “It wasn’t activist enough,” she says. “I wanted to be in the mix, on the ground.”
For the next decade, Wallace-Benjamin worked as a director with nonprofit organizations that had her very much “in the mix”—first at Action for Boston Community Development, administering 32 Head Start centers across the city, then at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, where she was responsible for integrating the clubs for activities and training, as well as welcoming girls for the first time. It was a daunting task. She was young, a woman, and Black. “I took the resistance, waded through it, stayed pleasant and professional, and eventually we got there,” she says.
Then, in September 1989, she was tapped to lead the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. She had just turned 35, and it would be her first position as CEO. But the organization was in deep financial straits. “The place didn’t have money to operate through Dec. 31!” she recalls.
“My husband was like, ‘Joan, have you lost your mind? We have two little kids!’” She and her husband—high-school sweetheart Milton “Ben” Benjamin—had a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old at the time. “And I was like, ‘I can do it, Ben. I know I can do it.’”
She immediately put her Rolodex to work. Not only did she find the funds to see the League into the next year, she led the organization into a new century on very stable footing. By the time she left in 2000, to help build a diversity practice for the executive search firm Whitehead Mann, Wallace-Benjamin had grown the League from 6 to 32 employees, purchased a headquarters building in Roxbury, and increased the budget to $4.5 million. “I took this organization that was barely alive in 1989, and by 2000 it was smoking with grease,” she laughs. “It had a programmatic agenda, and we were great advocates in the community.”
Her next assignment would be her biggest yet. In 2003, Wallace-Benjamin was asked to head the 230-year-old Home for Little Wanderers as it merged with three other organizations to become the largest provider of child and family services in Massachusetts.
The newly amalgamated organization had 800 employees and offered 32 different services to 10,000 children and families per year. “The purpose of building this economy of scale and scope was so the Home could influence public policy and practice in a way that was effective just because we served so many people,” Wallace-Benjamin says.
Because they were big, they were able to do big things, such as lobby the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to provide free post-secondary education for all children in foster care at any state school. They could also offer a continuum of care—from birth to age 21, both residential and community-based—so that fewer children slipped through the cracks. “If you started out with us in our residential services because of abuse or neglect and later your family got it together and you went back home, then you and your family could come into community-based therapy with us on an outpatient basis to keep things held together,” Wallace-Benjamin says.
In the midst of what would be her 15-year tenure as president and CEO, Wallace-Benjamin left the Home to heed another call: She joined newly elected Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick as his chief of staff. She says she loved heading up his transition team and helping him fill gubernatorial appointments with talented professionals but admits to finding herself blindsided by the media and politics of Beacon Hill. When the Home called 100 days into the new administration and offered her her old job back, she was eager to return. “I got to make some history, but I was happy to be back where I felt I could do the most good,” she says.
Wallace-Benjamin believes one of her deepest impacts on the Home was her President’s Youth Council, a group of residential children with whom she had a close mentoring relationship. “I know I had an influence on 90 young people, and I learned a lot from them and made some changes to the organization based on what I was told,” she says.
Although Wallace-Benjamin retired from the Home for Little Wanderers in 2017, she hasn’t stopped working or nurturing talent. She now coaches executives who are “aiming for the C-suite”—particularly women and people of color, and she has written a memoir distilling her leadership advice and experience, Leading a Life in Balance: Principles of Leadership from the Executive Suite to the Family Table. The book made its debut this fall.
Looking back on her years leading organizations, Wallace-Benjamin says that creating change can feel unlikely, even impossible, at times—but you can’t get what you don’t ask for. As for the “Ten Demandments,” Wallace-Benjamin remembers that, in the end, “We achieved all of them.”
- Served as president and chief executive officer of the Home for Little Wanderers, the nation’s oldest child and family service provider as it merged with three other organizations to become the largest such organization in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
- Led the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts to financial stability and facilitated the purchase of its headquarters
- Served as chief of staff on Massachusetts’ Governor Deval Patrick’s transition team and during his first months of office
- Held management positions with Boston-area nonprofits serving children and families, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston and Action for Boston Community Development Head Start
- Received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including being named a Distinguished Bostonian by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce
Watch this video to hear more from Wallace-Benjamin in her own words.
M. Darby Dyar ’80
The Search for the Fundamentals of the Solar System
In 1998, Darby Dyar ’80 was at a major crossroads in her life. A rising star in geology and minerology since earning her Ph.D. in geochemistry from MIT in 1985, she was on the verge of earning tenure at West Chester University outside Philadelphia. But she had two small kids, her then-husband was tenured at Amherst College, and she was exhausted from commuting 600 miles most weeks for the previous five years. So when Mount Holyoke College offered her a visiting position in its astronomy department, she didn’t think twice—she moved to the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts.
It was an easy and obvious decision for Dyar, but many of her colleagues were baffled. “There were a lot of people who thought that my career was over when I came to Mount Holyoke. You know, I came from the university environment. They said, ‘Oh, the teaching load’s going to kill you. You won’t have graduate students. You won’t get anything done.’ How wrong they were,’” Dyar says.
Since moving to Mount Holyoke, where Dyar now chairs the astronomy department, she has been a prolific researcher, and her subjects have been wide-ranging, literally spanning the solar system. She helped build a component of the Mars rover Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument and spent six years leading the Mars Science Laboratory mission’s geology science theme group. She is currently the No. 2 scientist on proposed mission to send an orbiter to Venus in 2026, which, if funded by NASA next year, will use a near-infrared spectrometer to determine the composition of Venus’s surface and offer clues about the planet’s past. She is one of a few select researchers who will study pristine lunar samples from the Apollo missions that have been hermetically sealed since they were collected on the Moon. She has also written nearly 300 papers, many with her undergraduate students as coauthors (and in a few cases, first authors), and has received more than $12 million in grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation.
But looking back on her career so far, Dyar says that the thing that she values the most is what naysayers warned her about back in 1998: the time she spends with her undergraduate students. “To me, the most important, lasting contribution is people. And so it’s the students that I’ve mentored that will be the thing I remember,” she says. They will remember her, too. Student testimonials about Dyar for Mount Holyoke’s Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship, which she received in 2010, include: “Darby has undoubtedly been [the] single most influential person in my Mount Holyoke experience,” and “Darby knows how to help people succeed in their dreams, not just pursue them.”
Dyar says that one of her goals as a professor is to help her students avoid the mistakes she made as a student. She arrived at Wellesley in 1976, following in the footsteps of her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother. It wasn’t easy.
“By the time I survived my freshman year, I knew I was not one of the smart women at Wellesley. I was pretty sure I got in because of my family connections,” Dyar says. She was planning to major in English or art history—science was definitely not on her radar. But during her sophomore year, her advisor reminded her that she did need to fulfil her science requirement, so she enrolled in Margaret Thompson’s introductory geology course, preparing to be bored. In the first class, Dyar remembers Thompson delivering a “knock-your-eyes-out great lecture,” and from then on, she was hooked.
“I wouldn’t say that I was happy at Wellesley,” Dyar says. “I struggled a lot, because I was undergoing this transformation from being an art history major, an artistic person, to realizing that I view the world through a scientist’s lens. … That was really, really hard.” Dyar thought something was wrong with her, that she’d made such a dramatic change in her major. Now she realizes how common that is for college students. “Now I believe in imagining possibilities, and so that’s what I try to share with [my students],” she says.
Dyar’s career in planetary science began in the middle of her senior year, when she was looking for a job to bring in some extra money. A professor pointed her in the direction of Roger Burns, a professor of mineralogy and geochemistry in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT, who was looking for someone to help with his research on lunar samples. It went so well that Burns encouraged her to stay on for graduate school. “NASA was going to pay for my Ph.D., so who could say no to that?” Dyar says.
It was with Burns that Dyar became interested in the fundamentals of spectroscopy, the study of how matter interacts with electromagnetic radiation to create spectra. In her 1985 doctoral thesis at MIT, a series of influential papers that continue to be cited, Dyar used Mössbauer spectroscopy to analyze iron valence state (a measure of the number of bonds around an iron nucleus) in various samples of minerals and glasses. Her results allowed her to determine the concentrations of oxygen that were present at the time the samples were formed.
‘A lot of my research is not so much dedicated to one or the other planet. It’s really about doing the fundamental science that’s necessary to develop tools for exploration of planets.’
—Darby Dyar ’80
One of the many challenging things for Dyar at MIT was the dearth of women—of the 300 graduate students in her department, just seven were women. So, realizing that as an MIT student she could take classes at Wellesley, Dyar took courses in Wellesley’s art department for her final four semesters as a graduate student. Being surrounded by women’s voices was soothing. “You know what women sound like on the bus, or in the dining hall, or in a classroom? [At Wellesley] you take that for granted. But it was really music to my ears when I was a grad student. I needed that,” she says. Sometimes she would spend the night with her younger sister Sarah, then a student at Wellesley, but often she would just take the bus in and out and enjoy that bonus time at Wellesley with art, thinking with the other side of her brain, surrounded by women.
A big part of Dyar’s research involves using several types of spectroscopy to create fundamental data on minerals that can then be used as a baseline for comparison when rovers, orbiters, and, eventually, humans, study other planets or moons. So far, Dyar and her students have cataloged the spectroscopic signatures of more than 5,000 minerals and rocks. Dyar says, “A lot of my research is not so much dedicated to one or the other planet. It’s really about doing the fundamental science that’s necessary to develop tools for exploration of planets.”
Molly McCanta, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee and a frequent collaborator with Dyar, explains Dyar’s research this way: “Her recent work … will ensure the returned data from current and future NASA missions, including the Mars Science Laboratory and Mars 2020 rovers, is properly interpreted. Her exacting science and insightful questions have changed our understanding of geologic processes on the Moon, meteorite parent bodies, Mars, Venus, and Earth.”
This academic year, Dyar is on leave from Mount Holyoke to focus on the mission to Venus her team is proposing to NASA, called VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy). Venus is “pathetically ignored” in our solar system, Dyar says. “We know more about the topography on Pluto than we do on Venus. And yet, Venus is the most Earth-like object in our solar system. It’s almost a twin,” she says.
While Venus is an inferno now, with surface temperatures of about 465 degrees Celsius, scientists believe that in its cooler past, it used to have liquid oceans, possibly for as long as three billion years. “Venus is the most likely candidate for having had an environment suitable for life. Whereas Mars, in contrast, also had liquid water, but only for about 300 million years,” Dyar says. Because Venus is so hot, it literally glows, meaning that scientists can’t use reflected light to study it—so VERITAS will use emitted energy to figure out the composition of its surface. If the mission is chosen by NASA, it will become Dyar’s part-time job for the next 12 years.
Between VERITAS and her upcoming work on the newly released Apollo moon samples, Dyar is expecting a busy year. But she is already missing her students. For many years, she has taught a first-year seminar on the exploration of Mars. “Oftentimes, I have them for their first class on the first day of the fall semester. I love their sense of possibility and their enthusiasm. The first assignment I give them, because my class is speaking intensive, is to prepare a five-minute presentation about themselves and why they decided to come to Mount Holyoke. And I am often in tears over these presentations,” she says. On the last day of classes, Dyar says she always tells her students that she hopes they have a fulfilling personal life as well as a rich intellectual life. “I’ve had lots of ups and downs in my career, but I feel incredibly lucky that I get to do what I do, and a byproduct of what I do intellectually is that I get to have these really profound, fulfilling relationships with the students,” Dyar says.
- Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor of Astronomy and Chair of Astronomy at Mount Holyoke College
- Serves on three of the eight NASA Solar System Exploration Virtual Institutes, which link competitively selected science teams across the nation to help lead research activities related to space exploration goals
- Recipient of the G.K. Gilbert Award from the Planetary Geology Division of the Geological Society of America, the Hawley Medal from the Mineralogical Society of Canada, and the Eugene Shoemaker Distinguished Scientist Medal from NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute
- Fellow of the Mineralogical Society of America, the Geological Society of American, and the Geochemical Society
Watch this video to hear more from Dyar in her own words.
The Drive to Tell the Story
Out of decades of reporting in the Middle East, there are some trips Kimberly Dozier ’87 will never forget. In the fall of 2001, she entered Afghanistan from Pakistan, driven by an official driver of the Taliban.
It was after the deadly Sept. 11 attacks as Kabul fell to Northern Alliance forces that November. For Dozier, a CBS News correspondent, being on the ground was the only way to adequately understand and explain what was happening in the country to an American audience.
After Dozier and her driver got through an initial checkpoint at the Khyber Pass, Dozier says, he “took me to a local hotel, and locked me in, telling me not to answer the door to anyone but [him].” Afghan men knocked on her door all night, and her driver returned at 5 a.m., urging her to leave quickly. She put on a veil, and the two of them got into a taxi. When they reached the next Taliban checkpoint, the driver said something to the taxi driver, who floored it.
“The Taliban on our side of the road raised their guns but were too slow,” she says. Their shouts faded as the taxi sped through the mountains and eventually made it to Kabul.
Dozier was taken to a Taliban safehouse, where she stayed for several weeks. She later learned that a group of journalists who left later that morning to head into Kabul were brutally attacked and killed by the Taliban. It wouldn’t be the last time she’d narrowly escape death.
“She was first out there, tenacious, fearless,” says Janet Leissner, who was then the CBS News Washington Bureau chief. “Fearless” is the word legendary CBS journalist Dan Rather has also used to describe Dozier.
Dozier does whatever it takes to tell the true story—a drive that has taken her to some of the most war-torn, dangerous places on Earth and developed her deep expertise of the Middle East. She has won a Peabody Award, four Gracie Awards, and two Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reports on violence in the Middle East and recovery on the home front.
Dozier’s interest in the Middle East began early. As a young teenager, her family lived in Iran, where her father helped build a helicopter for the Shah. Once back in the U.S., she says she was dismayed to hear people “talk about Iran and Iranians as if they are some sort of backward people.” It was far from the truth she saw, and she wanted to find a way to share that part of the story.
But Dozier says she wasn’t raised to have high expectations for her career. Back in Maryland, she attended a private school, where she says she never felt she fit in and was bullied for being a student on scholarship. Attending Wellesley was transformative.
She entered having a “very tweedy way about her,” her then-roommate Robin Tobins Burgess ’88 says. But she found freedom to experiment at Wellesley, dyeing her hair pink and, with Burgess’s help, fashioning it into a mohawk using Krazy Glue. Dozier says her classmates still recall how her hair stood out against the white snow on campus.
“She was always very focused and driven, even her experimenting was conscious,” Burgess says. “If she was going to have a mohawk, she was going to have just the right mohawk.”
By the time she graduated in three years with two majors, Dozier says, “I didn’t think of gender as anything getting in the way of what I wanted to do.”
Years later, in 1993, she received Wellesley’s competitive Mary Elvira Stevens Traveling Fellowship to investigate Islamic fundamentalism. She flew to Egypt with $10,000 and no knowledge of Arabic. But soon, news in the region took off and Dozier started filing for a local newspaper, then for the Washington Post, CBS News and other major outlets. She spent the next decade and a half as a correspondent for CBS News, in and out of Jerusalem, Cairo, Jordan, Kabul, and Baghdad, covering all of the most significant stories on the Middle East.
She told stories from Iraq and Jordan before the 2003 U.S. invasion and then reported on how Iraqis feeling oppressed by American forces were fueling an insurgency. By the mid-2000s, Iraq had become, as Dozier described in the summer 2005 issue of Wellesley, a horror show. She stayed on the story anyway.
She always knew she stood out, and she took the precautions that were now necessary—Army escorts and armored vehicles. “There’s no such thing as immunity from violence in Iraq,” Dozier wrote in Wellesley in 2005. She was, tragically, correct.
“When you go through trauma, the wisdom you get as you move through it, just the experience of having gone through it, processed it, learned what you can from it, grieved and recovered, makes you a wiser and more resilient person.”
On Memorial Day in 2006, Dozier went out to interview Iraqis at a location where an explosive device had gone off the day before. After she exited an armored vehicle, a deadly car bomb was detonated by someone who had been watching her and her team.
Two of her cameramen, a U.S. Army captain, and an Iraqi translator were killed. Dozier’s injuries were nearly fatal. Her legs were horribly burned and her body, including her head, was studded with shrapnel. The injuries resulting from the attack would require a long physical and mental recovery—she would need more than three dozen surgeries.
Leissner, the CBS bureau chief, visited her often as she was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “Kim is a fighter. I will say that forever. She’s strong, she’s tenacious, but this was pretty devastating,” Leissner says.
Burgess, her former roommate, flew to the Washington, D.C., area from Arizona and was astonished by Dozier’s resilience. Just a few months after her injury, Dozier was put on an elliptical for physical therapy and Burgess, who had been a fitness instructor, figured she’d hop on next to her. “She kicked my ass,” Burgess says. “That was who she is … that same drive is what got her through that really difficult period. It got her through not just her physical recovery,” Burgess says, but got her back to who she is.
Doctors warned her she wouldn’t walk again. Two years after the attack, she ran the 10K of the Marine Corps Marathon, jumped out of a plane with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team, and published a book about her experience, Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Survive, and Get Back to the Fight. (She has donated the proceeds and thousands of copies of her book to military-related charities and spoken about her experience to veteran and civilian groups.)
And through it all, she stayed with her reporting—telling award-winning stories of American troops and wounded veterans from the home front.
Four years after her injury, Dozier made the difficult decision to leave CBS News because the organization wouldn’t permit her to return to a conflict zone. She reinvented herself once again, covering intelligence for the Associated Press and national security for the Daily Beast. She’s now a CNN global affairs analyst and a contributor to TIME magazine.
Despite the ways she has fought her way back, she’ll be the first to say it wasn’t an easy, or linear journey. When forced to reroute her life, Dozier describes a choice to respond with hope or fear. She has not only chosen hope at nearly every corner, but chosen to live with what she calls a “hopeful stubbornness.”
“When you go through trauma,” Dozier reflects, “the wisdom you get as you move through it, just the experience of having gone through it, processed it, learned what you can from it, grieved and recovered, makes you a wiser and more resilient person.”
- Award-winning CBS News Foreign Correspondent
- Recipient of a Peabody Award, four Gracie Awards, and two Edward R. Morrow Awards
- Author, Breathing the Fire: Fighting to Survive and Get Back to the Fight
- Intelligence and national security correspondent
Watch this video to hear more from Dozier in her own words.