Wellesley’s highest honor is given annually to graduates of distinction who through their achievements have brought honor to themselves and to the College. This year’s recipients are Vanessa Ruiz ’72, Faith Vilas ’73, and Cecilia Conrad ’76.
A LEGAL TRAILBLAZER’S JOURNEY
Vanessa Ruiz ’72
By Amita Parashar Kelly ’06
Judge Vanessa Ruiz ’72 grew up around the law. Her father was a litigator, and she remembers listening intently at their home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when he talked about the cases he was working on. That experience didn’t propel her into law herself—at first. She majored in philosophy at Wellesley and considered graduate school in the field. But during the immense upheaval and social change of the late 1960s and early ’70s, she saw how much progress was happening through the nation’s courts and legal systems. “That really interested me,” she says. “The notion of how to make change and reform things that needed reforming.”
“What do I want to do that would make good change come about,” Ruiz finally asked herself, “and what’s the best way to do that?”
After graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1975, she worked in international, commercial, and intellectual property law. Only five years out of law school, she successfully argued an important civil rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court—Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman. She represented an African American renter and a nonprofit housing group that used testers to identify and fight discriminatory housing practices.
She says she didn’t start out with a “business plan for my career” or a vision of exactly where she would end up—she was just always on the lookout for interesting opportunities to learn more and work with smart people. That curiosity has continued to drive her throughout her career, one in which she has broken ceilings and led the way for generations of lawyers and judges.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Ruiz to the highest court in Washington, D.C.—the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. She was the first—and still only—Hispanic person to join the court.
The leap from lawyer to judge almost didn’t happen, though. In the early 1990s, she says, people told her she would make a good judge, based on her ability to think deeply about cases. But when a vacancy arose on the D.C. Court of Appeals, she thought her background wasn’t quite right for the job. So she called one of the only women judges she knew—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who at the time was serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. They talked for a long time, Ruiz says; Ginsburg asked her how she liked to approach cases. At the end of the conversation, Ruiz thanked Ginsburg for her time and said she’d continue to think about whether to apply. “No, stop thinking about it,” Ginsburg said. “Just do it. You’re going to be great at this. Just put your name in, and don’t look back.”
After her appointment to the judgeship, Ginsburg, who had since taken her seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, administered Ruiz’s oath.
Ruiz has received numerous awards for her legal and service work, including Judge of the Year from the Hispanic National Bar Association; the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Bar Association of D.C.; the Latina Leader in Law Award from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute; the Outstanding Service Award from the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation; Woman Lawyer of the Year from the Women’s Bar Association of D.C.; the Lady Justice Award from the National Association of Women Judges; and the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award of the American Bar Association.
Ruiz says her time at Wellesley was deeply influential and “quite special” because it helped focus her mind academically but also allowed her to take classes from Shakespeare to philosophy to computer science, including one taught by Noam Chomsky at MIT called Intellectuals and Social Change. “I’ve never been a particularly organized student,” she says, “but I was a very curious student.”
Wellesley, she says, “allowed this range of intellectual curiosity to play out. The offerings were there, and you had the space and time to do it.” She especially appreciated it being a women’s college, she says, likening it to a “nature preserve for women, with a big sign that says, ‘No hunting.’ You’re not supposed to shoot these women down when they are trying to do something new—just let them roam.”
Ruiz can still recognize Wellesley alums, she says, by the “red mark we have on our heads from going into brick walls repeatedly.”
“In part because we’re stubborn,” she says, laughing, “but in part because you don’t expect the brick wall to be there. We were led to believe while at Wellesley that the brick wall shouldn’t be there.”
That, combined with the College’s proximity to Boston during a time of great social unrest, lit a fire under her to help enact the change being demanded by the movements all around her—an experience and education she sees as very different from her upbringing in Puerto Rico.
Now a Senior Judge, Ruiz advocates for and supports women judges globally, including as a member of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ), of which she’s a past president. That work kicked into overdrive in 2021, when two female judges in Afghanistan, one of whom Ruiz had met through her work, were assassinated while on their way to work at the Supreme Court. IAWJ turned into a humanitarian relief organization overnight, navigating the immense task of helping evacuate female Afghan judges who were no longer able to work following the Taliban’s takeover to safer environments with their families. It’s intense and tiring work, Ruiz says, that serves as a constant reminder of how fortunate the U.S. is to be able, for the most part, to rely on basic safety and judicial independence in our courts.
Ruiz is also advocating for better access to the judicial system for all Americans. She’s been increasingly concerned with how those without legal representation and new immigrants, especially those with language barriers, navigate the system. She worked with the American Bar Association (ABA) to spearhead the adoption of national standards for interpretation and translation in court, making sure those services are provided as a matter of right. “How could you possibly go through a process where you don’t understand what’s happening?” she says. “In many ways, it’s more important to have a good interpreter than to have a good lawyer; at least you can tell your story to the judge and make yourself heard.” She’s now working with the ABA to update those standards.
If there is one ethos that drives her career and service work, Ruiz says, it is “Don’t be afraid.” When presented with a new opportunity, she advises, “don’t freeze up—look at it as an exploration into who you are going to be. No direction is irrevocable, no job needs to be forever. You don’t need to know what the next thing is, and that’s the beauty of it,” Ruiz says. “You just need to have your antenna out and be on the alert.”
AN OBSERVATORY LUMINARY
Faith Vilas ’73
By Amita Parashar Kelly ’06
In some ways, Faith Vilas ’73 was born with the drive to explore what’s above the Earth. Her grandfather was an early aviator in the 1900s, and her dad and aunt both flew planes, too. When she was growing up, “I never thought I couldn’t fly,” she says. So fly she did. By the time she got to Wellesley, she was a licensed pilot and had been active in the Civil Air Patrol. She fondly recalls hitchhiking from campus to local airports, sometimes taking classmates along with her, to rent airplanes and go for joyrides in the sky. She once flew over campus with a friend, doing power-on and power-off stalls, while her classmates on the ground were buzzing about the “crazy pilot” overhead.
Even earlier, around the second grade, Vilas had set her sights far beyond the Earth’s atmosphere—all the way to space. She remembers reading The Golden Book of Astronomy, which she says opened up her world and gave her the idea of studying planets. It was an era of endless possibility, when humankind’s knowledge of space was expanding rapidly. The U.S. was in a race to land on the moon—a feat first achieved in 1969, just before Vilas entered Wellesley—and the notion of discovering what lay beyond it was thrilling to the young woman watching from the ground.
Over more than four decades, Vilas went on to make foundational discoveries about what does lie beyond, increasing our understanding of the surfaces of planets.
“The idea of seeing or doing something for the first time—that was just amazing, and it still is,” she says. “I’ve still felt like a small child in a candy shop.”
Vilas’ mother went to Wellesley, so she and her family always envisioned it as part of her path, too. When she visited campus, she was especially impressed by the astronomy department and its chair, Professor Sally Hill.
She remembers Wellesley as a “wonderful place to study” with a lot of flexibility in coursework. Her interest in planets grew at the College. A geology class sparked her curiosity about what the surfaces of other planets look like. She parlayed her love of instrumentation, straight from her love of flying airplanes, into the field of planetary science.
The day before her Wellesley graduation, she received a very rare invitation to come to Professor Hill’s house. Vilas was deciding whether to go to MIT for graduate work, and she still remembers how quiet it was as she entered and sat down. Hill gave her advice that stays with her today: ”Why don’t you just try,” she said. “If you don’t like it, you can always leave.”
Vilas went on to MIT, where she researched Mercury. She’d originally wanted to work on Mars, but her advisor told her if she switched to Mercury, he’d send her to the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile to study the planet. She fell in love with the country, persuaded the observatory to hire her full time, backpacked around South America. She returned to the U.S. to earn her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona and work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Vilas spent 20 years at NASA, where she worked on quantifying orbital debris from spacecraft as well as her planetary science research. While at the Johnson Space Center, she also traveled on an expedition to Antarctica to search for meteorites.
She went on to direct the MMT Observatory in Arizona, a joint venture of the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Arizona, and she is now a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and editor of the Planetary Science Journal.
Vilas’ pioneering work has been foundational to our understanding of Mercury, asteroids, and moons. Her observations from the ground helped prove the existence of Neptune’s rings in 1984. She developed a technique to more easily locate the presence of water on airless bodies. Studying the presence of water has helped explain the history of the solar system and the potential for development of life. Her instrument design and observational techniques have also helped us explore the full diversity of the solar system.
Pam Melroy ’83, NASA deputy administrator and former shuttle commander, says Vilas’ work has “had a stunning impact on knowledge of our solar system.”
Melroy adds that beyond her scientific contributions, Vilas has a “real gift” for mentoring. “She has personally nurtured over two dozen summer interns, research associates, postdocs, and faculty fellows, mostly women. This does not include the dozens of women in aerospace she has mentored informally, like me,” Melroy says. “Faith has left a large wake of women stronger and more confident professionally and personally. While her scientific achievements are world class, her mentoring has had just as profound an impact on aerospace.”
For Vilas’ profound contributions to the field, she received the Fred Whipple Award in 2019 (the highest honor from the Planetary Sciences section of the American Geophysical Union) and the Harold Masursky Award for Meritorious Service to Planetary Science from the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and she was elected a Legacy Fellow of the AAS.
When Vilas received the Whipple award, she thanked Sally Hill, “for encouraging me to pursue my scientific passion in planets—the combination of passion and persistence underlies many advancements in science.”
Vilas also has an asteroid named for her: 3507 Vilas. She has, of course, observed it from the ground.
FROM THE ACADEMY TO PHILANTHROPY
Cecilia Conrad ’76
By Deborah Lynn Blumberg ’00
On her desk, Cecilia Conrad ’76 keeps two colorful monsters, Basma and Jad, and a baby goat, Ma’zooza. These furry friends are the Muppet stars of Ahlan Simsim, an Arabic-language version of Sesame Street that began airing in the Middle East and North Africa in 2020.
Conrad helped make Ahlan Simsim a reality—and a success—during her tenure as managing director of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition, which awarded Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee a $100 million grant. The competition is for projects that target social problems, and the puppets remind her of the show’s impact: It reaches and supports millions of children in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, many of whose lives have been upended by conflict. (Jad was forced to flee his home, and Basma welcomed him when he arrived in his new community.)
Now, Conrad is CEO of Lever for Change, a MacArthur Foundation initiative born out of 100&Change. It’s filling a gap in philanthropy by helping donors who don’t want to start a foundation give money in an equitable way that engages outside experts.
“We’re uncovering the best ideas from the best teams—including some that would have gone unrecognized but for the open call,” Conrad says.
She previously led and is now a senior advisor for the prestigious MacArthur Fellows Program, which gives so-called “genius grants” of $800,000 no-strings-attached seed money to writers, scientists, and entrepreneurs with outstanding talent to use for their creative endeavors. (The more than 1,000 fellows given grants since the program started in 1981 have included four Wellesley alumnae: historian Ayesha Jalal ’78, astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala ’90, legal scholar Patricia J. Williams ’73, and anthropologist Rita Corsi Wright ’75.)
Conrad came to the world of philanthropy after a decades-long career in academia, during which she focused on economics. In 2002, she was recognized as California’s Carnegie Professor of the Year, and she received the National Urban League’s Women of Power Award and the National Economic Association’s Samuel Z. Westerfield Award.
In both her philanthropy work and teaching, she has cultivated a passion for supporting other peoples’ growth, development, and big ideas.
“It’s fun living vicariously through the great things people are doing,” she says. “And there’s nothing like seeing your students excel.” Conrad is proud of her former students and mentees, including economist Trevon Logan, a professor at Ohio State University who directs the National Bureau of Economic Research’s working group on race and stratification in the economy.
Conrad grew up in the segregated South in the 1950s, where early experiences piqued her interest in civic engagement and making an impact. In Dallas, she watched her mother sit in at lunch counters. Her father, a surgeon and one of just a handful of Black doctors in the hospital where he worked, was the first Black person elected to citywide office there.
In 1963, at 8 years old, Conrad marched after civil rights activist Medgar Wiley Evers was killed. During the presidential election the following year, when incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, ran against Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, she helped her mother convince voters to stay in line after poll workers said people still waiting outside after the polls closed couldn’t vote.
“Mom was an activist out on the street, and dad was working behind the scenes,” Conrad says. Both instilled in her a sense of responsibility to speak up and help others. “It was about making sure all people had opportunities,” Conrad says.
Over the years, it’s also been about calling out and disrupting destructive behaviors. At an economics seminar, for example, Conrad, then a newly tenured professor, was alerted by one of her students that primarily men were having side conversations during women’s talks.
“I thought that was really disrespectful,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘It’s your responsibility to speak up,’ so I turned around and I said, ‘Hush!’”
Conrad first became curious about economics in junior high, when she was fascinated to learn about the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement and conference, where gold became the basis for the U.S. dollar, with other currencies pegged to its value. “I got really interested in who these people were and what an economist was,” she says.
Women’s colleges came onto her radar when her mother hosted a Seven Sisters event at the request of a local Wellesley alumna, Hortense Landauer Sanger ’32. Conrad applied to Wellesley, Smith, and Vassar. She accepted Smith’s offer. The next day, she had second thoughts. “I was a city person,” she says. She phoned Wellesley, which had accepted her, too, and was let in. “It was a last-minute call, and it was a good call,” says Conrad.
At Wellesley, she majored in economics. When she was distressed after doing poorly in an intermediate microeconomics class, she spoke to her professor. “Is there any hope for me in the field?” she asked. Her professor offered encouragement and support. Years later, after receiving her Ph.D. in economics from Stanford, she encountered the economics professor at a conference. “He said, ‘I guess there is hope for you,’” Conrad says.
She says studying economics at a women’s college was fortuitous, because at Wellesley, it didn’t occur to her that economics was a male-dominated field (and it still is). In a co-ed environment, she says, she may have felt overwhelmed or defeated and given up.
Partway through her graduate program at Stanford, Conrad took a position at the Federal Trade Commission, where she focused on the regulation of industry and antitrust policy. “I wanted to see what it was like to be an economist,” she says. She finished her Ph.D. in 1982, then landed a job as assistant professor of economics at Duke University.
The bulk of her work as an economist focused on the effect of race and gender on economic status. As a professor at Barnard in the 1980s and ’90s, Conrad redeveloped an existing course on sex and economic discrimination to focus more on women of color. Later, at Pomona College, she created a class on race and the U.S. economy. “Data and facts can be inroads into difficult conversations,” she says. She diversified student groups for projects by putting people who came from different ZIP codes together.
Conrad served as vice president for academic affairs and dean and as acting president at Pomona, where she expanded the college’s summer undergraduate research program to include the arts and humanities. She has also served as vice president and dean of faculty at Scripps College.
Around the same time, she was asked to join the MacArthur Fellows Program selection committee. Over the years, she reviewed hundreds of nominee files. “It was exciting,” she says, “almost like being at Wellesley again, reading materials in different disciplines. I found myself thinking about topics I would not have thought about otherwise, like quantum computing.”
Conrad joined the MacArthur Foundation full-time in 2013. Now, she is tackling issues like racial inequity, gender inequality, access to economic opportunity, and climate change through the Lever for Change-facilitated grants. Since 2019, Lever for Change has helped distribute more than $1.6 billion for social good, supporting some 145 organizations. Their work has helped 10 million Texans gain access to mental health care and provided support to 1 million refugees in 10 different countries, among other accomplishments. Conrad hopes to disperse another $1.5 billion by 2025. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to create a philanthropic sector “as bold as the change it seeks to achieve.”
Amita Parashar Kelly ’06 is a supervising producer at NBC News.
Deborah Lynn Blumberg ’00 is a writer, editor, and aspiring book author living in the Washington, D.C., area.