Alumna and Founding Director of the University’s Promise Scholars Program Honored During the Ceremony for the College of Education, Kinesiology and Social Work
May 30, 2024
Honorary Doctorate Recipient Wanda Bonnell

When Stanislaus State alumna and retired staff member Wanda Bonnell learned she would receive an honorary doctorate from her alma mater during the University’s 64th Commencement, the news floored her. 

“At first, I kept saying, ‘I don't know why I’m getting this honor,’” she said. “I haven't done big things. All I gave was my time, my passion and my heart. That’s all I had. I left my heart at Stanislaus State instead of in San Francisco.” 

Hearing the news “was quite the moment for me. I look back and think, ‘That's the ugliest cry I’ve had in a long time.’ But it was so heartfelt.” 

Bonnell said she’s still in shock at times, but those familiar with her and her work aren’t surprised at all. They say it’s a well-deserved honor.  

On Thursday, May 30, during the University’s Commencement ceremony for the College of Education, Kinesiology and Social Work, the University conferred Bonnell with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. 

“Today is special because I have the pleasure of bestowing an important and well-deserved honor on one of our most visionary, humble, passionate and devoted campus community members and supporters,” said Stan State Interim President Sue Borrego. “If this is the last thing I do in my career, it is one of the best things I’ve ever had an opportunity to be a part of.”   

“I feel privileged to receive an honorary doctorate from the University that has played a significant role in developing and nurturing the potential and talent of tens of thousands of students.” 

-- Wanda Bonnell, Honorary Doctorate Recipient

Bonnell created a rippling and enduring legacy at Stan State. A first-generation college graduate who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1995 and master’s in education in school counseling in 2010, Bonnell’s service with the University spanned 24 years until she retired in 2017.  

During her tenure, she counseled students as an academic advisor in the University’s Educational Opportunity Program. But 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 — in 2006. 

The program has transformed the lives of many, earning Bonnell heartfelt praise from former students, colleagues and community members. Her dedication to foster and emancipated youth deeply resonated with Borrego. 

“I was an emancipated minor at age 16,” Borrego said during the ceremony as Bonnell stood by her side. “No one in my family had attended college, and I thought high school would be the end of my educational journey as well. I stand here today because of people like Wanda.” 

The Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters is the highest honor conferred by Stanislaus State and the California State University Board of Trustees. To be considered, honorees must have achieved excellence in areas embodying the CSU’s ideals and objectives, performed meritorious and outstanding service, or had life-long achievements that serve as an example of the CSU’s aspirations. 

The Promise Scholars program was born from Bonnell’s master’s thesis. She selected foster and emancipated youth because they are among the most vulnerable groups.  

“When you talk about foster kids and homeless kids, they are the ones who get left behind all the time,” she said. “Those kids came in from the roughest of backgrounds. No one believed in them, and many didn’t think they could go to college. We needed a foster youth program that was designed, designated and comprehensive for these kids.” 

Moreover, she saw academia as a way to invest in young people's lives and watch them grow.  

In addition to her work with Promise Scholars, Bonnell has served as a senior fellow of the American Leadership Forum and president of the Modesto/Turlock chapter of the American Association of University Women. In 2005, she was named an Outstanding Woman of Stanislaus County, and in 2009, she was presented with the Congressional Angel of Adoption Award by Congressman Dennis Cardoza in Washington, D.C., for her work with foster youth.  

Honorary Doctorate Recipient Wanda Bonnell being hooded at Commencement by Interim President Sue Borrego
Interim President Sue Borrego hoods Honorary Doctorate Recipient Wanda Bonnell, assisted by Provost Rich Ogle.

After she was hooded and awarded her degree at Thursday's ceremony, she addressed the Class of 2024 graduates and guests.  

“I am proud to stand before you as a first-generation college graduate on this momentous day,” Bonnell said. “As someone who has spent more than 30 years being a part of Stanislaus State’s community — as both a student and staff member — this honor means so much to me. 

“I feel privileged to receive an honorary doctorate from the University that has played a significant role in developing and nurturing the potential and talent of tens of thousands of students.” 

Bonnell shared during the ceremony that it wasn’t her first time delivering a commencement address. In 1989, she spoke at Modesto Junior College’s ceremony, and at the time, she was the first African American commencement speaker in the college’s 68-year history.  

She was intentional in naming her speech. The title? “You Can Make a Difference.”  

“It was inspired by the many wonderful people who helped guide me during my educational journey. That phrase serves as a reminder that education has the power to change lives and that everyone, no matter their background, can make a significant impact.” 

Her mantra to “make a difference” is a philosophy she followed in building the Promise Scholars program and her life’s work.  

“I am proud of the students who were able to earn their degrees,” Bonnell said. “They are counselors. They are firefighters. They are social workers. They are teachers. One just graduated from medical school. They call me ‘mom,’ and it’s the coolest thing ever. 

“Education is more than just acquiring knowledge,” she said. “It’s also about transformation and seizing opportunities. This University has a rich history of academic excellence and an unwavering commitment to student success — values that are represented by the thousands of graduates here today.”  

Bonnell urged graduates to lead, to inspire others and to continue the legacy of making a difference. 

“Be a guide for others and always continue to seek opportunities where you can learn and grow. Regardless of where your path takes you, whether it’s in STEM disciplines, business, education, nursing, social work or some other profession. You can be the change you want to see in our world.” 

Wanda Bonnell with family and friends