Alumni, Faculty, Staff, Administrators and Friends Honor the Legacy of Two Beloved and Dedicated Figures
May 24, 2024
Wanda Bonnell, Sue Borrego and Donna Pierce
From left to right: Wanda Bonnell, Sue Borrego and Donna Pierce

It’s rare for long-time friends and campus community stalwarts Wanda Bonnell and Donna Pierce to experience a loss for words. But when the duo found out they both were chosen to receive an honorary doctorate during Stanislaus State’s 2024 Commencement ceremonies, the news left them speechless.  

It’s a long-standing tradition for universities to award honorary doctorates to individuals who’ve made significant contributions to a particular field, community, cause or to society in general. When you talk to campus community members, alumni and others familiar with Stanislaus State, it’s not unusual for someone to mention Bonnell or Pierce and the significant impact they’ve made over the past several decades, both at Stan State and in the community. 

That’s why alumni, staff, faculty, administrators, friends and others gathered to celebrate the women in advance of the University’s Commencement ceremonies, during which each will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. 

Stanislaus State’s 64th Commencement exercises will take place May 28-31, and each of the University’s four colleges will have its own ceremony. All ceremonies begin at 9 a.m. in the Amphitheatre and will be live streamed.  

After the conferral of their degrees, each will deliver remarks and address graduates of the Class of 2024. 

Pierce will receive her honorary doctorate during the ceremony for the College of Science on Wednesday, May 29, and Bonnell on Thursday, May 30, during the ceremony for the College of Education, Kinesiology and Social Work.  

The reception was an opportunity for Stan State’s campus community members and others to celebrate Bonnell and Pierce. 

“We are here today because of these two doctors,” said Interim President Sue Borrego. “Getting an honorary doctorate is a big deal.” 

Bonnell and Pierce were informed of the honor earlier this spring during a luncheon that included current and former campus community members, some of whom participated via Zoom.  

“Honestly, I couldn't bear the thought of calling you on the phone and telling you this and not seeing your faces,” Borrego said. “I didn't want to hog the joy. I wanted everyone to see you get what you deserve. I have said this before, and I will say it again: If I do nothing else in my career, being able to be a part of this, with these two, is one of the privileges of my life.” 

Bonnell and Pierce each have long histories at the University.  

“There are people in life that truly have a servant's heart, and everything they do is for the betterment of someone other than themselves. These two women both embody that spirit. They are servants of this world, and they have the purest hearts.” 

- Mary Hartsfield, Associate Vice President for University Advancement

Pierce has been a member of the Stan State community for more than 50 years. She arrived in Turlock in 1971 alongside her husband, Wayne Pierce, a professor of botany and the two embarked on a journey of service and commitment to the University.  

One of Pierce’s significant contributions to Stan State and the community was the Trans-California Pathway, which was the realization of her late husband’s dream of an on-campus arboretum. Pierce nurtured the project and secured donations and in 2023, the arboretum was named the Wayne and Donna Pierce Trans-California Pathway. 

In addition to her work to establish the pathway, Pierce has helped raise funds for scholarships and has been an ardent supporter of Athletics. She briefly coached the University’s women’s softball team, served as the clock keeper for basketball for more than 25 years and was inducted into the Warrior Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007. 

“I’ve sat with Donna at ball games, and it doesn’t matter if somebody is 18 or 80,” Borrego said. “When they come in, they pay homage to her, and nobody walks by without stopping.” 

Bonnell also created an enduring legacy at Stan State. She is a first-generation college alumna who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1995 and master’s in education in school counseling in 2010, both at Stan State. Her service as a University staff member spanned 24 years until she retired in 2017. She held several roles during her tenure, including counseling students as an academic advisor in the Educational Opportunity Program.  

However, her most notable achievement was serving as the founding director for Promise Scholars — a program that supports foster and emancipated youth in their pursuit of higher education. 

Bonnell’s work with foster and emancipated youth struck a chord with Borrego. 

“I was an emancipated minor at the age of 15. No one in my family attended college, and I thought high school would be the end of my educational journey as well,” Borrego said. “I stand where I am today because of people like her in my life. 

“Her pioneering work not only changed individual lives, but also has had a lasting influence on families and communities for generations. The students she has touched and inspired bear testament to the profound significance of her work.” 

Scores of people gathered to sing Bonnell’s and Pierce’s praises and share stories and memories about them. 

Alumnus and current staff member Paul Gardley spoke about the counseling, guidance and encouragement he received from Wanda before he went on to earn his doctorate. 

“I felt your love, and if it wasn't for your support, I would not be here,” Gardley said. “I wouldn't have known I could do it if you hadn't told me I could. I would not be the man I am, the husband I am or the father that I am.” 

Associate Vice President for University Advancement and Chief of Operations Mary Hartsfield spoke highly of both women’s selflessness and dedication. 

“I'll just say that there are people in life that truly have a servant's heart, and everything they do is for the betterment of someone other than themselves,” Hartsfield said. “These two women both embody that spirit. They would give their last dime, their last piece of clothing, their last morsel of food to make life better for someone else and never, ever, ever feel like they'd done anything at all.  

“I just know that one day they're going to have an opportunity to turn around and see the faces of all of the lives that have been impacted by their acts of service, because truly, they are servants of this world, and they have the purest hearts. It's a pleasure and an honor to know both of you.” 

Alumna Raichelle Strickland shared a personal story about both women’s influence on her life. 

“Both Donna and Wanda hold very special places in our hearts,” Strickland said. “Wanda is one of the reasons I became a counselor and why I was able to obtain work at Stan State. I remember working as a peer advisor and interning. She literally took me by the hand and her advice guided my path. I quit a full-time job to go and work as a student assistant, and within a year, I was hired as an advisor. I owe that to you, to your mentorship, to your role modeling. 

“Donna, you are like a second mother to my family,” Strickland said. “We love the time that we have spent with you and your support. We just cherish the both of you, and I feel this is fitting. I am so grateful to the institution for this.” 

Bonnell and Pierce will share words of inspiration and memories of their time at Stan State during their Commencement addresses. But during the luncheon and reception events, they expressed their affection for the University. 

“I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done, and Stanislaus State will always be home to me,” Bonnell said.  

Pierce expressed similar sentiments. 

“This University is my heart,” she said. “I like to say when I first came here, I was taller than all the trees, and I was 5 feet, 4 inches in those days. I always give credit to the young people who came here in the ’60s and early ’70s. They wanted to build a University that amounted to something great.  

“We played together. We ate together. We danced together, and we stayed and built something totally grand.”