Academic Ceremonies - Commencement
Commencement 2008 Speaker
and Honorary Degree Recipient
Julia Alvarez, a passionate teacher and a prolific writer, whose novels, non-fiction, poetry, and essays have engaged audiences of all ages and garnered critical praise and awards, was inspired by two cultures. Although born in New York City, she spent her early years in her parents’ home country, the Dominican Republic, where she became immersed in the country’s oral tradition. She returned to New York at age 10, where her struggles with English constituted “a watershed experience,” she says. “I had to pay close attention to each word – great training for a writer.”
Throughout high school, undergraduate studies at Middlebury College, where she graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and a master’s program in creative writing at Syracuse University, Alvarez says she was a driven soul. “I knew that I wanted to be a writer.” In the late sixties, however, Latino writers and writing that focused on ethnic characters and cultures did not receive much welcome from publishing houses, so Alvarez turned to teaching creative writing.
In 1988, she came to Middlebury College to teach literature and creative writing. Three years later, she earned tenure and published her first novel, How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, which garnered popular readership and numerous awards. A decade after its publication, it was selected as one of four books for the national reading project, A Latino National Conversation. In 1998, Alvarez, seeking more time to write, left her full-time teaching position to become writer-in-residence at Middlebury, where she continues to teach and mentor.
In the Time of the Butterflies, her second novel, was published in 1994, and many books – poetry, children’s stories, essays, and novels – followed, including: Before We Were Free, The Woman I Kept To Myself, Saving the World, and A Gift of Gracias: The Legend of Altagracia. Her books have been translated into many languages. In addition to numerous awards for her writing, Alvarez was named Woman of the Year in 2000 by Latina Magazine.
Alvarez and her “companero,” Bill Eichner, an ophthalmologist, live on an eleven-acre, organic farm outside Middlebury. Nine years ago, the couple established Alta Gracia, a sustainable farm-literacy center in the Dominican Republic (cafealtagracia.com). In addition to growing organic, shade-grown coffee on the sixty-acre farm, the couple opened a school to help battle the norm of illiteracy in the country.