This story was originally published on Rutgers Today.

Sheryl Lee Ralph, an Emmy Award-winning actress, Broadway star and alumna of Rutgers College, will be awarded an honorary doctor of fine arts degree when she addresses graduates at the 257th anniversary commencement of Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences on May 14, 2023, the Rutgers Board of Governors approved today.

"As we celebrate the birthday of Paul Robeson, great actor, great artist, outstanding athlete, outstanding student, I’m so happy to represent his legacy as one of the first women, especially one of the first Black women, to graduate from Rutgers College. Legacy matters," Ralph said.

The board also approved an honorary doctor of humane letters degree for Mark Angelson, chair of the Institute of International Education, a member of the U.S. President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and former chair of the Board of Governors, and an honorary doctor of science degree for Katalin Karikó, award-winning neurosurgery professor and former senior vice president of BioNTech, to be awarded at the ceremony.

“I am beyond excited to welcome our inspirational, extremely talented and accomplished commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients to celebrate our 2023 graduating students,” President Jonathan Holloway said. “Our students have shown fortitude, flexibility and dedication on their uncharted path to academic success, and we are ecstatic to be putting the final touches on uplifting and spectacular commencement festivities in their honor.”

World-renowned jazz musician, composer and educator Terence Blanchard will deliver remarks at Rutgers University-Newark’s commencement ceremony on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, at the Prudential Center in Newark. The board also confirmed an honorary doctor of arts degree for Blanchard.

Rutgers University-Camden will hold the Rutgers University–Camden and Graduate School Commencement on Monday, May 15, 2023, at the Freedom Mortgage Pavilion. The Honorable Dana Redd, former mayor of the City of Camden and a 1996 graduate of the Rutgers School of Business–Camden, will deliver the keynote address at the ceremony, where she will also receive an honorary doctor of letters degree.


Sheryl Lee Ralph


Among the first class of undergraduate women admitted to Rutgers College in 1972, Ralph found her calling when she landed the lead in a campus play. In 1975, at age 19, she graduated near the top of her class earning her English literature and theater arts degree. Ralph was inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 2002.

From bringing characters to life on screen, performing on Broadway, and producing, to landing the title of national best-selling author with her literary debut, Ralph has long been a revered force in the entertainment industry. Her acclaimed career spanning four decades has garnered her Emmy, Critics Choice, and Independent Spirit Awards, and her deep-rooted philanthropic endeavors have touched lives across the world.

Forty years after being nominated for a Tony Award for her electrifying performance as Deena Jones in the 1982 Broadway hit Dreamgirls, Ralph made history at the 2022 Emmy Awards when she won Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as all-knowing kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard in ABC’s hit sitcom Abbott Elementary, becoming only the second Black woman to win the award. The show has captivated the nation with its depiction of an underfunded Philadelphia public school and its dedicated teachers. And Ralph’s resolute character is based, in part, on her mother-in-law, Ann Hughes, who had a long career as a secretary in the Philadelphia school system.

Additional television credits for Ralph include starring in Moesha, a lead role in Instant Mom, starring in Ray Donovan, and appearing in many others, including Barbershop, ER, Designing Women, Criminal Minds, and Claws. Ralph is currently recurring as President Kelly Wade in Motherland. On the big screen, Ralph has worked on The Mighty Quinn, Mistress, To Sleep with Anger, The Distinguished Gentlemen, picking up a win for Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards for her performance in To Sleep with Anger. As a writer and director, Ralph’s award-winning short film Secrets was a finalist in the HBO Film Short Competition, Showtime’s Filmmaker Award Series, and the BET Filmmaker Award Competition.

In addition to her award-winning work creating the role of Deena Jones, Ralph has performed on Broadway most recently as Madame Morrible in Wicked, becoming the first Black actress to take on the classic role. She also produced on Broadway’s Thoughts of a Colored Man. Additional Broadway credits include the Tony Award-winning musical Thoroughly Modern Millie and reuniting with Loretta Devine and Jennifer Holliday for a sold-out, one-night-only Dreamgirls reunion.

This year she performed a rousing rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during the pregame entertainment at Super Bowl LVII. As a writer, Ralph’s debut book Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl was a national best-selling title.

Off camera, Ralph is a passionate health advocate and honored AIDS activist. She is the founding director of the nonprofit organization DIVA (Divinely Inspired Victoriously Anointed) Foundation and created the critically acclaimed Divas Simply Singing!, an evening of song and entertainment that is the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country. Ralph was awarded the first Red Ribbon Award at the United Nations for her unique use of the arts in HIV/AIDS activism and was recently appointed as an AIDS Ambassador for Jamaica’s Ministry of Health.

A mother of two with a blended family of four, Ralph is married to Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes.