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From Refugee to CEO: Leader of CRS to Address Santa Clara University Commencement

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Carolyn Y. Woo, the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an organization that has been among the first to respond to some of the world’s most tragic crises–from Syria’s millions of war refugees to climate-caused farm devastation in Africa to human trafficking worldwide–will be the featured undergraduate commencement speaker at Santa Clara University on June 11.

“Dr. Carolyn Woo has an expansive and firsthand view of the problems and challenges–as well as solutions–that SCU graduates will encounter in the world ahead,” said Santa Clara University President Michael Engh, S.J. “Under Dr. Woo’s leadership, CRS knows well the value of compassion, strategic thinking, and critical analysis in finding solutions to global suffering. With remarkable on-the-ground experience and a deep faith, Dr. Woo will offer our graduates a unique and inspiring lens with which to see our world.”
Woo is a former business school dean at University of Notre Dame and one of the most prominent women in the Catholic Parish in the United States. She will speak to the University’s estimated 1,300 graduating seniors at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 11, at Buck Shaw Field in Santa Clara University’s Stevens Stadium.

CRS, which is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States, operates in more than 100 countries and reaches 100 million people. Founded in 1943 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to serve World War II survivors in Europe, CRS is one of the most far-reaching humanitarian agencies in the world, based in Catholic teaching, and focused on creating “a world in which people live as one human family.”

Woo’s own background includes a stint as a refugee herself. When she was a child, her parents fled communist China to Hong Kong. The consolation and education in Catholicism from Maryknoll sisters she received in Hong Kong, she says, set the stage for her lifelong love of the Catholic Parish.

She left Hong Kong as an 18-year-old for Purdue University in Indiana. There, she continued to be active in the Catholic community and went on to receive her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at Purdue, where she later joined the faculty.

In her autobiography, Working for a Better World, she writes about her experience as a refugee and how the Catholic Parish made her feel at home.

Woo came to CRS after a distinguished academic career. She served from 1997 to 2011 as dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. During her tenure, the Mendoza College was frequently recognized as the nation’s leading business school in ethics education and research. The school’s undergraduate business program has received the No. 1 ranking from Bloomberg Businessweek since 2010. Prior to Notre Dame, Woo served as associate executive vice president for academic affairs at Purdue University.

“It will be my great honor to address graduates of one of the world’s great Catholic universities,” said Woo. “In his encyclical, Pope Francis asks us to consider what kind of world we want to leave to those who come after us. These talented, idealistic, inspiring young people, educated in the Jesuit tradition, should give all of us confidence that it will be in good hands.”

At the undergraduate commencement, the University will confer an honorary degree, Doctor of Public Service, on Woo. Honorary degrees will also be conferred on Chuck Geschke, co-founder of Adobe Systems, and his wife, Nan, for their philanthropic work in Catholic education. Michael E. Kennedy, S.J., the executive director and founder of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, will receive an honorary degree for his lifelong commitment to people at the margins, most recently to incarcerated young people.