4 April 2024 • AlumsService Honorary Degrees Celebrate Leadership, Creativity and Service By Andrew Wickenden '09

HWS will recognize three members of the alumni community with honorary degrees alongside Commencement speaker Carol Spahn.

The Commencement ceremony will begin at 9 a.m. on Sunday, May 19. Learn more about Commencement. 

During the 2024 Commencement exercises, three members of the HWS community will be recognized with honorary degrees: best-selling author, screenwriter and producer Jessica Knoll ’06; decorated air combat veteran and former HWS Director of Alumni Relations Lt. Col. John E. Norvell ’66, P’99, P’02; and the late HWS Trustee Michael Rawlins ’80, P’16, who served at the Walt Disney Company as Head of Enterprise Content and the Broadcast Media Design Team. The 2024 Commencement speaker, Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn, will also be awarded an honorary degree. 

“The achievements and experiences of our honorary degree recipients are as impressive as they are varied, reflecting an inspiring commitment to service, creativity and leadership,” says President Mark D. Gearan. “Hobart and William Smith are proud to recognize these four remarkable individuals and the impact they have had on our campus, their communities and the world.” 

The ceremony will begin at 9 a.m. on Sunday, May 19. Learn more about Commencement. 

About the 2024 Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients

Jessica Knoll '06 shares career insights with students during a Career Trek in the Sanford Room.

Jessica Knoll ’06 is the New York Times best-selling author of Luckiest Girl Alive, The Favorite Sister and Bright Young Women. Her books have been published in more than 40 languages. Her latest novel, Bright Young Women, was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2023, a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Goodreads Choice Award Finalist, and a Best Book of the Year by NPR, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar and Kirkus. It was also an Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel. 

Knoll adapted Luckiest Girl Alive for the screen and served as executive producer; the movie, starring Mila Kunis, was released by Netflix in 2022 to critical acclaim. In 2021, she was named a screenwriter to watch by Variety, and in 2019 her original script, ‘Til Death, sold to Amazon and made The Black List.  

Knoll has participated in the HWS Behind the Scenes Career Trek in Los Angeles and visited campus for a Career Talk hosted by the Salisbury Center. An Arts Scholar at HWS, she majored in English with a concentration in creative writing. After graduation, she worked at a talent and literary agency in New York and has been a senior editor at Cosmopolitan and the articles editor at Self. She grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, graduated from The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their daughter.

Lt. Col. John E. Norvell ’66, P’99, P’02 speaks as part of the panel of authors of Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Legacy of Military Service during Bicentennial Weekend.

John E. Norvell ’66, P’99, P’02 is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American Social and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  

As a student at HWS, Norvell was named to the Dean’s List and was a member of the Advanced ROTC. He graduated with a B.A. with High Honors in American history. After graduation, he joined the U.S. Air Force and amassed more than 1,400 hours in the F4 Phantom II and other jet aircraft. As a member of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron stationed at U Dorn RTAFB in 1973, he flew on the last F4 fighter mission of the Vietnam War. Before his retirement, he served as the Executive Officer for the Historian of the U.S. Air Force in Washington, D.C.

Norvell, who holds an M.A. from Syracuse University, joined the Hobart and William Smith staff in 1993 as the Director of Alumni Relations. During his time as alumni director, he revived many Hobart traditions; helped develop the Distinguished Faculty Awards program, which recognizes outstanding teaching at HWS; and played a key role in establishing the Days of Service program, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. After leaving HWS in 2002, he served as Director of Development at DeSales High School in Geneva, officially retiring in 2005.   

In 2009, Norvell joined the Hobart Alumni Council, where he serves as Chair of the Heritage Committee. A member of the HWS Veterans Memorial Committee, he is coauthor and editor of the 2022 book, Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Legacy of Military Service. He has spoken on campus at the Benjamin Hale dinner and as a regular guest of the Veterans Day programming. In 2014, he helped teach a course at HWS on the Battle of Gettysburg. Norvell was also vice chair of the Hobart Oral History Project Committee, has been an Admissions Volunteer and currently serves as a Class Correspondent for the Pulteney Street Survey. In 1997, he was inducted as a Druid during the weekend of Hobart’s 175th anniversary celebration. For his many years of service to HWS, he was honored with a Lifetime Service Award in 2016.   

He and his wife, Bonnie, have two children, Amy Norvell Krajci ’99 and Melissa Norvell Hontz ’02, and two grandchildren.

Michael Rawlins ’80, P’16 holds a mentoring session with Mahamadou Bala '21 in Salisbury Center for Career, Professional and Experiential Education in 2019.

Michael Rawlins ’80, P’16, who died unexpectedly in November 2023, was an innovative user design professional, an HWS Trustee and a long-time mentor to countless HWS students and alumni. 

Rawlins double-majored in history and art history, graduating with high Honors in history. He was a Druid and a member of the Statesmen soccer team. After graduation, he embarked on a wide-ranging career. As a strategist, he led teams at companies such as Cigna, FiServ, MassMutual, Hartford Life and Aetna. He then joined ESPN as the principal user experience design architect, breaking new ground with the company’s Fantasy Tools and Design Division, before transferring to the Walt Disney Company as Head of Enterprise Content and the Broadcast Media Design Team.   

A dedicated mentor, he began advising his peers when he was a student himself and continued the practice for more than 40 years. He participated in the Professionals in Residence series, was a judge for the Pitch competition and was the 2019 keynote speaker for the Multicultural Networking and Career Conference hosted by the Salisbury Center for Career, Professional and Experiential Education.   

Rawlins joined the HWS Board of Trustees in 2019, providing vital counsel on the committees for Advancement & Communications, Belonging, Diversity and Equity, and The Student Experience. Beyond HWS, he served as an instructor at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, vice president of the User Experience Professionals Association and president emeritus of the association’s Connecticut chapter. He was a board member at the Hill-Stead Museum and the Connecticut Science Center and served as president for A Better Chance Program in Glastonbury, Conn., which brought promising students to his hometown for educational opportunities. In recognition of his engagement, Rawlins twice received the White House’s President’s Volunteer Service Award, earning bronze recognition in 2015 and silver in 2017.   

Part of a large HWS legacy family — he was one of five siblings to attend Hobart and William Smith and is the parent of a graduate and cousin of another — Rawlins is survived by his wife, Rhonda; daughter, Melissa, and son, Dylan Rawlins ’16; siblings, Janice Faulkner ’76, Marilyn Rawlins-Grundy ’86 and Norman Rawlins ’88; cousin Laura Douglas ’79; and his many friends and colleagues.

Carol Sphan, Director of the Peace Corps

Carol Spahn was sworn into office as the 21st Director of the Peace Corps in December 2022. 

Spahn has more than 25 years of public and private sector experience and has worked in countries around the world on issues ranging from small business development and infectious disease prevention to women’s empowerment. 

She most recently served as the Peace Corps’ chief executive officer and, prior to that, as acting director. Previously, she was also the Peace Corps’ chief of operations in the Africa Region and the country director of Peace Corps/Malawi. 

Spahn’s Peace Corps roots extend back to her service as a Volunteer from 1994 to 1996 in Romania, where she was a small business advisor. 

Before returning to the Peace Corps as country director, Spahn was senior vice president of operations at Women for Women International, an organization serving marginalized and socially excluded women in conflict affected countries. Prior to that, Spahn served as executive director of Accordia Global Health Foundation, a nonprofit focused on creating sustainable centers of excellence in health in Africa. She served as vice president, chief financial officer and treasurer of Small Enterprise Assistance Funds, a nonprofit private equity fund manager that invests in small- and medium-sized companies in developing countries. She has also held positions at leading private sector institutions, including GE Capital and KPMG Peat Marwick. 

Spahn holds a bachelor's degree from the Catholic University of America and a master’s degree in international development from the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.