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Loretta Claiborne to speak, receive honorary degree at York College's Dec. 18 commencement ceremony

November 18, 2019
Loretta Claiborne stands with her hand on her hip wearing red blazer.

Nearly 300 graduates will receive degrees from York College at the Dec. 18 winter commencement ceremony, where Special Olympics athlete and motivational speaker Loretta Claiborne will offer the address and receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. The program will begin at 10:15 a.m. in the Grumbacher Sport and Fitness Center’s M&T Field House. Associate Professor of Chemistry Jessica Fautch, recipient of the Presidential Award for Teaching and Mentoring Excellence, will also address the audience.

Claiborne describes herself as "just one of God's children," but she is so much more – a humble woman of faith whose life and lessons have inspired many. Born in 1953 with both physical and intellectual disabilities, Claiborne did not walk or talk until the age of four. In 1956, doctors told her mother that Claiborne belonged in an institution, because she would never be able to survive in the “regular” world. Her mother, Rita, refused to institutionalize Claiborne and instead chose to raise her just as she did her other seven children. Despite her different abilities that resulted in years of bullying, teasing, and negative retaliation, Claiborne overcame these injustices and persevered, crediting Special Olympics as the positive force that allowed her to turn her life around. 

Claiborne, a Special Olympics athlete since 1970, discovered a passion for running early in her life and has since completed 26 marathons, earning her personal best (3:03) during the 1982 Boston Marathon. In addition to running, she holds a 4th degree black belt in karate, is an avid tennis player, and continues to be a multisport competitor in Special Olympics. While her sports performances are impressive, Claiborne’s life contributions are immeasurable. She is a motivational speaker who travels the world meeting with international leaders, teachers, and students promoting inclusion and respect for people of all abilities. Claiborne personally has shared her message with Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis, United Nations leaders, five U.S. Presidents (Reagan through Obama), Warren Buffett, Oprah, Dr. Oz, and the Crown Prince of UAE, just to name a few.

Claiborne, a celebrated athlete, was honored with ESPN's 1996 ESPY- Arthur Ashe Award for Courage and is the subject of "The Loretta Claiborne Story," a Disney movie still airing on The Lifetime Channel. Claiborne currently holds two honorary doctoral degrees from Villanova University and Quinnipiac University. Despite all this notoriety, Claiborne’s life mission remains unchanged; she continues to champion, worldwide, inclusion for all persons with different abilities and remains a dedicated advocate for Special Olympics.

Fautch leads initiatives to improve retention and engagement in STEM programs in addition to teaching at York College. She regularly adopts new technologies in the classroom and studies how these pedagogical approaches can support her students. In addition to championing the flipped class for organic chemistry, Fautch recently brought adaptive learning to the general chemistry program. She has published a number of articles on this work, and has presented at several national conferences. Fautch also directs a residential learning community at York College, the STEM Scholars, a group of students who live and learn as a cohort while navigating STEM majors and engaging in research.

Fautch earned an American Chemical Society (ACS)-certified bachelor's degree in chemistry Magna Cum Laude from Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., and a doctorate in bioinorganic chemistry from Purdue University. Her training in chemopreventative vanadium and selenium complexes led to a post-doctoral study in oncology at the University of Wisconsin, where she investigated genetic implications for breast cancer using a rat model. These very different (but connected) experiences have resulted in an interdisciplinary approach to her research at York College. She initially focused on yeast as a model organism for studying copper-induced oxidative DNA damage, but transitioned to primarily supporting student-led projects. Such projects have resulted in numerous presentations at national ACS conferences in areas such as: investigating heavy metals in beach renourishment; determining antioxidant properties of green tea extracts; developing nickel-based chemosensors; and analyzing DNA damage using capillary electrophoresis.