In 2001, Ruth Simmons made the history books when she took the helm at Brown University and thus became the first African American president of an Ivy League institution. Before Brown, Simmons served six years as president of Smith College, where she launched a number of important academic initiatives, including the very first engineering program at a women’s college in America. Simmons, the daughter of a Texas sharecropper, began her professional career as a French professor at Harvard University. Active in a wide range of educational, charitable, and civic endeavors, she holds honorary degrees from numerous colleges and universities, including Columbia, Dartmouth, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others. Furthermore, she has been honored with the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, and President Obama appointed Simmons to the President's Commission on White House Fellowships in 2009. In 2018, Simmons came out of retirement to take leadership of Prairie View A&M, a historically Black university in her home state.

As a future academic leader, Simmons got her first taste of the Ivy League in the late 1960s, when she was admitted to Harvard for graduate studies in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department. At Harvard, Simmons found herself in a completely unfamiliar world. Unlike many of her classmates, she'd grown up poor, having been educated in segregated schools, before earning a full scholarship to Dillard University, a private, historically Black university in New Orleans. Harvard offered Simmons the opportunity to combine literature with history, gender, and women's studies. It took her three years to earn her Master of Arts, then another three to earn her doctorate, both in Romance literature at Harvard.

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Simmons has never lost contact with her alma mater, which has recognized her trailblazing career with numerous awards over the years. In 1997, Simmons was awarded the Harvard Centennial Medal, an honor given by the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to recipients for their "contributions to society." Then, in 2002, Simmons returned for Harvard’s 351st Commencement, where her exemplary career was recognized with an honorary Doctor of Laws from her alma mater. More recently, in 2021, the academic leader was the main speaker during the virtual webcast that served to replace that year's Commencement events. Simmons used the opportunity to discuss her incredible trajectory, before urging Harvard graduates to fight for noble causes. “I ask that you add your voice to the cause of justice wherever you go,” Simmons said.