Molly Ola Pinney

Molly Ola Pinney, you are a teacher, an advocate, and an entrepreneur. The Global Autism Project you founded in 2003, when you were just 23 years old, has changed the lives of thousands of families around the world. It began when you moved to Ghana to help an American expatriate family care for their child with autism. Soon you cast your gaze outward, at local children with autism and families who were marginalized, the children accused of being possessed by “bad spirits.” Swayed by fear and misinformation about autism, one mother told you she would have preferred a diagnosis of a terminal illness. It was at this point that you resolved to help these children and families, whose fears about autism were misplaced or misguided. You were determined to provide credible information and guidance. Accordingly, you founded an organization that provides culturally relevant training and education for families of children with autism, teachers and other professionals, and community members. After you returned to the United States in 2005 to enroll in Columbia’s School of General Studies, you returned to Ghana at every opportunity to make sure that work continued. But you wanted to go further, to bring hope to every parent in every country who equated an autism diagnosis with a death sentence. The Global Autism Project now operates in ten countries, spanning four continents. It is a vital resource for the 70 million people in the world with autism, 85 percent of whom reside in developing countries. As your organization’s website proclaims, “Autism Knows No Borders; Fortunately Neither Do We.” As a student at Columbia’s School of General Studies, you wrote your senior thesis on American families of children with autism. In your research, you discovered that misplaced fears and misinformation about autism were prevalent in the U.S., too. You discovered instances of stigma and denial across socioeconomic classes in the U.S., affecting access to therapy and other services. These findings, you would later discover, could significantly impact public health policy. Your accomplishments represent the best of the School of General Studies and the nontraditional students it serves. And your work around the world exemplifies the University’s global mission. We are proud to count you among our alumni and to honor you with the University Medal for Excellence.