2023 Alumnae Achievement Awards

A blue background with a circular photo of each alum recipient.
Published on 

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. They will be celebrated at a reception on campus on Friday, October 20, 2023.

Although Vanessa Ruiz ’72 grew up hearing about the law from her father, a litigator in San Juan, Puerto Rico, she was inspired to become a lawyer herself during the transformative social upheaval of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when she recognized the potential for achieving change through the legal system. After graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1975, she explored international, commercial, and intellectual property law. Only five years after law school, Ruiz successfully argued a pivotal civil rights case, Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, before the U.S. Supreme Court, fighting against discriminatory housing practices.

In 1994, Ruiz made history when President Bill Clinton appointed her to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, making her its first—and still only—Hispanic member. Ruiz is a leader in judicial ethics and access to justice initiatives and a staunch advocate for women in the judiciary. A past president of the International Association of Women Judges, she has worked with the organization to help evacuate female Afghan judges to safer environments when they were no longer able to work following the Taliban’s takeover.

Ruiz continues to champion access to justice for all, particularly immigrants facing language barriers. Her advice to students and alums is to embrace opportunities for personal growth and positive change, and above all, “Don’t be afraid.”

In many ways, Faith Vilas ’73 is not earthbound. Raised by a family of aviators, by the time she arrived at Wellesley she was already a pilot, actively involved in the Civil Air Patrol. However, her sights were always set on the cosmos. She was deeply inspired by the space race of the 1960s, marked by the historic moon landing in 1969, just before she started her journey at Wellesley.

Vilas has made significant contributions to planetary science, unlocking the secrets of planetary surfaces and expanding our understanding of celestial bodies. She earned an M.A. at MIT, conducted research at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, and earned her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona. She later joined NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where she spent two decades as a scientist, working on quantifying orbital debris from spacecraft in addition to her planetary science research. While there, she traveled on an expedition to Antarctica to search for meteorites. She went on to direct the MMT Observatory in Arizona and is now a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and editor of the Planetary Science Journal.

Vilas pioneering contributions extend to the discovery of Neptune’s rings, development of techniques to detect water on airless bodies, and design of instruments that have enriched our understanding of the solar system’s diversity. Beyond her scientific achievements,

Vilas is celebrated for her mentorship of countless women in aerospace, leaving a lasting impact on the field.

Cecilia Conrad ’76 works for the MacArthur Foundation as CEO of Lever for Change and as senior advisor for collaborative philanthropy and MacArthur Fellows. Lever for Change bridges gaps in philanthropy by enabling donors to allocate their resources equitably while engaging external experts to maximize social impact. So far, it has helped distribute more than $1.6 billion for social good, supporting some 145 organizations.

Conrad’s journey began in academia. After earning a Ph.D. in economics at Stanford, she largely focused her research on the effect of race and gender on economic status. At Pomona College, Conrad was the Stedman Sumner Chair in Economics, and she is currently professor emerita of economics. In 2002, she was recognized as California’s Carnegie Professor of the Year. At Pomona, she also served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college and later as acting president. In addition, she has been interim vice president and dean of the faculty at Scripps College.

After serving on the MacArthur Fellows Program selection committee, 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 grants. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to create a philanthropic sector “as bold as the change it seeks to achieve.

Visit Wellesley magazine to read in-depth profiles of the recipients.