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Class of 2015 praised for perseverance, 'grit'

May 20, 2015

Members of the Class of 1966, the college's first entering class, lead the procession at CCRI's 50th commencement on May 15. Members of the Class of 1966, the college's first entering class, lead the procession at CCRI's 50th commencement on May 15.

When students, faculty and staff began the 2014-15 academic year at the Community College of Rhode Island, they were promised a year to remember as they celebrated the college's 50th anniversary. The excitement all culminated in the 50th commencement exercises, which saw more than 1,850 degrees and certificates conferred.

"What an amazing year this has been," said President Ray Di Pasquale as he celebrated the achievements of not only this graduating class, but also an alumni tradition stretching back to the first graduating Class of 1966, 11 of whom were on hand to mark the occasion.

"You have worked hard and I am certain you are well prepared for the challenges that life will bring you. Whether you are heading out into the workforce or continuing on to attain your bachelor's degree and beyond, you have great reason to be proud of all you have accomplished here."

There were so many important stories to be told and achievements to be acknowledged, there was hardly any room on the dais in the Vincent A. Cullen Field House. State dignitaries, including Gov. Gina Raimondo, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, among others, shared the stage with Di Pasquale and college administrators.

Di Pasquale lauded Raimondo's support of the higher educational system in the state, noting that under her tenure, for the first time in decades, CCRI's funding request increased. She said she saw this as an investment in the future of the state, sharing her hopes that the graduates would stay in Rhode Island and continue to bolster its economy. "Rhode Island needs you," she said. "Your talent, your vision, your entrepreneurship ... you've got grit, you refused to give up. If you take that with you from here ... I promise you your future will be bright."

Bill Flanagan Keynote speaker Bill Flanagan, one of the sons of founding president Dr. William F. Flanagan, also recognized the unmistakable, unshakable character of the men and women who made up the graduating class in his speech. He pointed out that despite many students having to juggle multiple jobs, family obligations or military service, their strength of character was the common bond that kept them moving toward a richer life.

"The mission of the college inspired something different. Something radical," said Flanagan, who grew up in the Knight House as the campus grew up, too, around him and his family. "It was to be a place where all kinds of people would come together as equals and learn from each other."

A testament to the fruits of that mission were two women seated like bookends for the long history of the college: Class of 2015 Student Speaker Elizabeth Husted and Sondra Pitts '66, co-chair of the 50th anniversary celebration and member of the first graduating class.

In her remarks, Pitts recalled the humble beginnings of the college: 325 students in the original class, sharing a converted factory space in Providence and building the school from scratch. It's a far cry from the college we know today: an enrollment of more than 17,500 spread across four campuses and two satellites. But still, Pitts said, the mission and the fabric remain unaltered.

"As different as the CCRI of today is from the CCRI of 1964, however, in the most important respects they are really the same. CCRI is still the best choice when one's options are limited for whatever reason. CCRI is still the best choice for making progress while determining how far to go in higher education to achieve in life what one wants to achieve," she said. "And CCRI is still the best choice for combining a top-notch college education with preparation for many of today's and tomorrow's best jobs."

Elizabeth HustedHusted herself told a story familiar to so many students from both eras. Just out of high school, she said she wasn't mature enough to embrace the hard work that precedes success. After failing out of Rhode Island College twice, she shied away from the classroom, excelling in the workforce instead. But in her late 20s, she said she wanted to find a community that would nurture her and help her move forward and achieve her dreams.

"I, and so many others are so lucky that CCRI welcomed me with open arms into their community," said Husted, who eventually became co-president of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and found advisers and professors who would teach her "never to limit" herself.

"Because of the confidence that this community has helped me gain, I reached out to my other communities becoming Ms. Lesbian Rhode Island 2014, having the honor to represent another part of me, and found a job that I love at Patriot Subaru of North Attleboro that is allowing me to continue to learn and grow toward my career goal as a small business owner," said Husted, who will continue on to Bryant University in the fall to pursue her bachelor's degree and hopes to open up a bed and breakfast in Providence.

"This completion isn't just a 'stepping stone' for us either, you know. It's a trampoline for some of us – to bounce up and down, to celebrate our hard work with this associate degree," she told her classmates.

The hallways of the college echoed with just that sentiment as the students huddled together in their caps and gowns, catching up and congratulating one another before the ceremony. Springboard or stepping stone, no matter the nature of the accomplishment, there was no doubt that this diverse array of students merited recognition for their hard work.

Jacqueline LefrancoisStudent Jacqueline J. Lefrancois, 65, a General Studies major from Blackstone, Massachusetts, said she was thrilled that this day had finally come, as she was fulfilling a lifelong dream. Lefrancois had put off school for marriage and a career in hairdressing, dropping out of high school in the 11th grade. Ten years ago, she and her daughter both got their GED® credentials, and Lefrancois enrolled at CCRI via Transition to College in Woonsocket. "I always, always, always wanted to go to college," said the grandmother of two who had perfect attendance during her decade at CCRI. "I love that I'm graduating today. I did it!"

Jonathan Raymond Travelyn of Westerly also had to drop out of high school when he was diagnosed with stage 3 lymphoma at 16.

Jonathan Travelyn and Basim AnatawabiAfter making a full recovery, he jumped right back into the classroom, earning an associate degree in Electrical Engineering. He said some of the most valuable experiences came in the form of friends like fellow engineering student Basim Anabtawi of Cranston.

"It's great to meet people who are going for the same thing you are," said Travelyn, who will be taking many of the same classes as Anabtawi when they both matriculate to the University of Rhode Island in the fall.

The camaraderie in certain programs, such as the Early Childhood Education graduates in the Human Services Department, was palpable in the robing rooms as students waited to line up. Many of the students came from the same working background.

Isabel M. Bosworth of Cumberland came to the college courtesy of Dr. Daycare in Pawtucket, where she works. A mother of two, she loved the flexibility CCRI afforded her.

"I wish this was a four-year school," said Bosworth, who is going on to RIC for her bachelor's degree in an effort to transition from day care to kindergarten in the public schools.

Kelly D. Vanasse of Pawtucket, one of Bosworth's classmates, said she also decided to return to school after working for over a decade in the early childhood education field. "I loved it here," she said. "Everyone was so personable."

Over in the rooms filled with Health Sciences grads, the crowd was adorned with sparkling purple additions to the caps and gowns, many students customizing their mortar boards with bedazzled messages celebrating their degrees in Dental Assisting, Radiography and more.

Newly minted medical laboratory technician Wilson A. Fox of Bristol was relatively staid by comparison, but no less happy to be enjoying the day. He was working for Coca-Cola as a driver before deciding to change careers. "It was time for something different," he said. "This was a great experience."

Lonnie WilkersonStudent Lonnie A. Wilkerson of Providence was graduating with a degree in Respiratory Therapy. He had worked as a nurse assistant for 13 years in a nursing home, and had long nurtured an interest in the health field but wanted to advance his career and learn new skill sets.

"I enjoy helping people. I felt like if I could advance myself, I could do a little more for people," he said.

At the back of the room, similarly soft-spoken Nicholas Cimorelli of Providence was draping his purple Dental Assisting sash around his neck. Cimorelli said that his final goal is to become a dentist, and wanted to gain exposure in the field first through CCRI's program. "I hope to finish up at CCRI with my associate degree in General Studies and then go on to URI for a bachelor's before dental school," he said. "Now I know that I like the field, and I'm excited to move forward."

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Last Updated: 8/25/16