RHEA SUH. Environmentalist. Activist. Woman at the helm. Leading voice, and a voice of reason, in protecting the world we call our own.
You were raised in Boulder, Colorado, the daughter of Korean immigrants. Something in that majestic Rocky Mountain sky seemed to take hold very early on. You and nature always got along. Then you came to Barnard and really dug in, majoring in environmental science and setting your course. A year of teaching earth science; a Fulbright to Seoul, Korea; a masters from Harvard University; and on to the Packard and then Hewlett Foundations where you led clean energy and climate change initiatives. In 2009, President Obama nominated you to the U.S. Department of the Interior as assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget. With all you did there for the environment, your push for the department’s first chief diversity officer was a move especially close to our hearts.
In 2015, you became president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, because fighting for what’s right is what you do best. With nearly 500 scientists, lawyers, and policy pros, and the support of over two million members, you and the NRDC preserve and protect our environment for people from all communities, races, ethnicities, and incomes—and that means safeguarding the air, water, land, and quality of life that we will pass on to our children. Your influence was felt in the lead-up to the Paris climate change agreement and in the cleanup of the toxic water in Flint, Michigan. And when you rallied the crowd at the Women’s March on Washington, you noted how each individual there had made a personal choice to make a collective difference.
The stellar Class of 2018 will soon join you as Barnard alumnae, but they have already joined you in the fight—for diversity, inclusion, sustainability, conservation, divestment, accessibility and more. By your example, they see how environmental justice and social justice and women’s rights are intimately linked—and how our past, our present choices, and our future are connected, as we tackle the biggest challenges of our time. You never take quality of life for granted and, I can assure you, neither shall we.
On behalf of my faculty colleagues and our graduates, for whom this work matters very much, I am honored to award you the 2018 Medal of Distinction—with a great deal of Barnard pride and with hope for the planet that we inhabit and love.
— Presented by Sandra Goldmark, Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Theatre and Director of Sustainability and Environment