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Student veteran selected as Class of 2014 speaker as college celebrates 49th commencement
May 13, 2014
The Community College of Rhode Island will award more than 1,700 degrees and certificates when it celebrates its 49th commencement on Friday, May 16, in the Vincent A. Cullen Field House at the Knight Campus in Warwick. The line of march will step off at 4:15 p.m.
As he does each year, President Ray Di Pasquale will share stories of student success. Gov. Lincoln Chafee, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, Congressmen James Langevin and David Cicilline, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Board of Education Chair Eva-Marie Mancuso are scheduled to bring greetings and congratulations to the Class of 2014.
Student veteran Chad McFarlane, 30, of Providence was selected as the Class of 2014 student commencement speaker and will address his classmates that night.
McFarlane is no stranger to overcoming obstacles; he has seen more in his 30 years than many have seen in a lifetime. A stint of homelessness and five years of service in the Army, including two tours in Iraq as a tank gunner, are some of the experiences he had under his belt before enrolling at the CCRI. Still, with all of that behind him, tackling college was the goal that perhaps made him the most nervous.
After struggling to find a place of his own during his high school years, McFarlane moved in with his sister in Providence, completing high school through the Providence Alternative Diploma Program. But after being "profoundly affected" by the events of 9/11 and realizing he wasn't quite ready for college yet, he knew the military was the path for him.
"While I was in the military, I sort of had a fear of college. I hadn't had a lot of positive reinforcement about school. But after being deployed to Iraq twice, I learned that if I could handle that, I could probably handle college," he said.
Once he left the military at the rank of sergeant, McFarlane moved to Florida, where he worked as a postal carrier for three years. There, he said, he saw what not having an education meant. He frequently delivered mail in "bad neighborhoods," and saw that the alternative to a college degree could be bleak. It was then that he decided to conquer his next challenge and moved back to Rhode Island to pursue his degree.
McFarlane, who is waiting on admissions decisions to determine where he will transfer to complete his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, said that CCRI has nurtured his burgeoning passion for the field.
"I'm a person who likes to problem-solve, and I like understanding how things work. With engineering, you create things that make the world better, essentially," he said, adding that the variety of applications for the trade, from medical to infrastructure, gives him many options through which to "leave his impact on the world."
But McFarlane has already devoted his time to bettering the lives of others. He has served as president of the CCRI Student Veterans Organization, where since December 2012. McFarlane said the organization has about 150 members and works to advocate for student veterans on campus and to provide "a sense of unit camaraderie" among veterans.
"I've heard my story quite often from other students. Transitioning is hard. You're five, 10 or 15 years older than the average freshman, and you don't necessarily understand other students," said McFarlane, who struggled with PTSD after his deployment. "So we try to be a buffer for those students, and a safe place."
He also serves on the board of directors of the Rhode Island Military Organization, which recently established a military lounge at T.F. Green Airport and works on other issues supporting the state's military families.
From July 2012 to January 2013, McFarlane received a competitive fellowship from The Mission Continues, an organization that awards veterans six-month fellowships to work with a local nonprofit of their choosing to help better their community. McFarlane's spent this time establishing the military and veteran student offices at CCRI as well as reaching out to other Rhode Island colleges and universities to "try to unite student veterans around the state."
His work with the SVO earned McFarlane the honor of being named a 2013 Newman Civic Fellow by Campus Compact, an award sponsored by KPMG. McFarlane said he was both surprised and tremendously humbled to receive the award, which validated his life's work of caring about his community, giving back and "making his environment better."
"That's something I've always sought to do," said McFarlane, citing his involvement in the Boy Scouts, JROTC and the military. "It's about wanting to really connect with your community and making a positive impact."
Earlier this year he was named one of 20 members of this year's New Leaders Council of Rhode Island, a competitive leadership cohort that aims to nurture a new generation of progressive leaders.
He said about 50 applicants were put through a rigorous process including interviews that used leadership role-playing scenarios. The group meets for one weekend a month for five months to listen to speakers, participate in seminars and exercises and embark on an exciting journey of self-discovery and access to valuable networking opportunities.
"The idea is to instill progressive values in younger people who want to go out and impact the community, be it through politics or community service or in general," explained McFarlane. "It's great to be recognized for what you do on a daily basis."
President Ray Di Pasquale said McFarlane is the perfect choice to represent the CCRI Class of 2014. "We are so proud of what this young man has achieved. He has overcome significant challenges and persevered to complete his degree. And along the way, he has helped so many other student-veterans on their journey," he said. "I know he will have a profound message to share with his classmates at commencement."
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