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Community College of Rhode Island

President Di Pasquale keynotes Martin Luther King Jr. event

Jan. 17, 2012

I was very honored to be the keynote speaker for the Rhode Island Ministerial Alliance’s 29th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Scholarship Breakfast held at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet on Jan. 16. Every year, the breakfast helps to raise scholarship money for underprivileged young adults who otherwise would have difficulty paying for their education. With a crowd of about 450 people that included state, educational and church leaders as well as students, this was an important way to share some of the work that we do at CCRI and highlight some amazing student stories. I hope you enjoy the remarks and feel the same sense of pride that I do in our community.


Good morning. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to be here this morning at the 29th annual Martin Luther King Scholarship breakfast.

This is my seventh year as President of the Community College of Rhode Island and I’ve attended this breakfast every year. In fact, one of my very first acts, upon becoming President, was to attend this breakfast. And I haven’t missed one.

When Pastor Shaw asked me to be the keynote speaker at this year’s breakfast, I was deeply honored and touched. This is a very special moment to share some thoughts with you on this very special day.

In my 35 years of working in higher education, I’ve worked in three states, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. My jobs have ranged from Institutional Advancement to Admissions, Enrollment Management and Student Affairs. And now a President at CCRI and the Commissioner of Higher Ed.

When I was growing up, I lost my father when I was 15 years old, and my mother a few years later. But I didn’t stop. And if you don’t stop, you can be anything you want to be.

Just to give you an idea of what that entails, CCRI is the largest community college in New England. We had almost 18,000 students this fall on our four campuses and two satellite locations in Rhode Island.

We are a major player in workforce training in this state. We train approximately 35,000 Rhode Islanders each year in subjects such as OSHA certification and Workplace Spanish.

And, in our 47 years, we’ve produced over 57,000 alumni, many of whom still live here in Rhode Island and who contribute to our state’s economy.

As the president of a college or university, you’re faced with daily challenges and countless decisions that affect a lot of people. As Commissioner, I work with the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College to oversee 44,000 students and a billion dollar budget. But that’s part of leadership. And you need wisdom to be a good leader. I live in that role every day and there are times when it can be a heavy responsibility.

In any organization, people look to their leaders to lead. They look for decisions to be made with a sense of fairness and wisdom. While power can corrupt, conscience is what keeps good leaders grounded.

Martin Luther King was such a man, a leader with conscience, who knew that the best and most effective revolutions are fought without violence.

When pondering the role of a good leader, I’m reminded of a Biblical story from the Old Testament, one that I’m sure you’re familiar with. One that involves a King who is forever remembered for his great wisdom.

King Solomon was approached by two women one day. The women placed a baby at King Solomon’s feet and both women claimed to be the baby’s mother.

Solomon asked that a sword be brought to him, and he proposed to divide the baby in half and give half to each of the women. One woman begged the king not to harm the baby and to give it to the other woman. The other woman agreed to have it divided, so that both women could have half of the baby.

King Solomon answered by giving the baby to the woman who was willing to give it away so that it wouldn’t be harmed; realizing that the real mother would never allow her child to be hurt, preferring to sacrifice her child to another.

As leaders, our daily decisions usually don’t involve life or death matters. But they are still decisions that need to made with wisdom, fairness and conscience. And we have to always remember that for the people involved, they can often feel as though their situation is life and death in importance.

At CCRI, every decision is made with the notion of what’s best for the students. We live in a large, diverse world and CCRI is a microcosm of that world. Thirty per cent of our student body is made up of minorities, and we work hard on a daily basis to create opportunities for all of our students to succeed. Our tag line is “Change your life. Achieve your dreams,” and we strive to make that possibility available to all.

Every year, I see students who amaze me. Students who have overcome seemingly impossible obstacles to begin their journey of changing their lives and achieving their dreams. I’d like to share a couple of brief student success stories with you.

Jean Nsabumuremyi

At age 12, Jean Nsabumuremyi was on the run for his life. He was alone in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994, the year of genocide in that country. When the killing suddenly began, he fled with his family, joining a crowd of refugees looking for a safe way out of the city. He quickly lost his way.

After a day on his own, Jean found his mother and his four brothers and two sisters, who were able to escape because his father, who was out of the country at the time, had friends in the government.

The family fled to the Congo to escape the violence in their country, spending each night in a different hiding place, until they moved again to Zambia, where they lived in a United Nations refugee camp before resettling in the United States in 1996.

Jean got a job and struggled at first to learn English, but he knew he wanted to better himself. He enrolled at CCRI in fall 2006, and he graduated in 2009 with a degree in General Studies and a 3.6 GPA. Jean went on to attend Cornell University, where he majored in international development with the ultimate goal of working with the United Nations Development Program in Africa.

Leonardo Sime

I’d also like to tell you a little bit about Leonardo Sime, our student speaker at commencement in 2010.

Growing up in one of New York City’s worst neighborhoods, Leonardo found escape in two things: education and service. His plan was to combine these two virtues by becoming a teacher in hopes that his life experience will be useful to his students.

He spent time as a U.S. Marine serving in the Middle East – once right after high school and again after 9/11.

When he was out of the service, his sisters persuaded him to leave New York City and join them in Rhode Island. He told me when we met that, that even in Providence, sometimes it’s hard for him to sleep at night because it’s too quiet!

He began taking classes at CCRI in fall 2007. He juggled his academic responsibilities with raising three stepchildren and two of his own. On top of this, he is a personal trainer, volunteers with his church and works with behaviorally troubled children in the Providence public school system.

He graduated in 2010 as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society with a 3.7 GPA. After turning down an opportunity to attend Columbia because he didn’t want to return to the dangers of New York City, Leonardo hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Rhode Island, so that he can teach writing, one of his passions.

I can’t tell you how proud I am of these two young men. Like many of our students, they overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to rise above their circumstances. Just as leaders in every walk of life are forced to make life-altering decisions, they made one all-important decision that changed their lives.

Their decision was to continue their education. They are tomorrow’s leaders.

Speaking of tomorrow’s leaders, this morning we gather here to celebrate the Martin Luther King Scholarship recipients. I’d like to recognize two of them – one present and one past.

Naja Sobers

Naja attends the St. James Baptist Church in Woonsocket and will be receiving a Martin Luther King Scholarship this year. Over the past summer she worked with New York City youth under the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Teen Health Initiative, as an intern.

From her experience in New York, Naja’s dream is to work with the youth of Rhode Island in hope of having them fulfill their dreams through education and activism. Thank you, Naja, and the best of luck to you on your exciting journey.

Kolu Johnson

Kolu is currently employed as a Quality Control Senior Analyst at Amgen, Incorporated, a biotechnology company. This didn’t just happen.

She arrived in the United States from war-ravaged Liberia just in time to enter college. She had no money to pay for necessary college supplies that her courses required, like a graphing calculator for Calculus and a molecular module kit for Chemistry.

In church, she heard about the Martin Luther King Scholarships and submitted an essay. In January 1993, Kolu was notified that she had been awarded a scholarship and finally she was able to purchase the equipment she needed to compete on a level playing field with her classmates.

Throughout the remainder of her college years, she continued to receive this scholarship and she made the most of her opportunity, excelling in college and going on to enjoy a successful and rewarding career today. Thank you, Kolu.

These are inspiring stories. All of the Martin Luther King Scholarship winners have had to struggle and have persevered to overcome many challenges. And the stories won’t end today.

There will be more challenges. There will be highs and lows and bumps in the road that no one can foresee. Nothing that is worth accomplishing comes easily. But, to even reach this point, the most important decision had to be made.

The decision to pursue education and to make education a critical part of your lives. Education is the first step to getting where you want to go. Getting to the point of changing your lives for the better. Getting to the point of achieving your dreams – whatever they might be.

This is the wise decision that you all make today that will pay off down the road. Some day it may be your turn to help create opportunities for others less fortunate. Some day you may be called upon to lead, to make difficult decisions, to exercise wisdom, fairness and good conscience in everything you do.

Today, we face challenges in higher education. As you may know, many students entering college in Rhode Island have not acquired basic learning skills in math and English.

Students should have learned these skills in high school. But the reality is they have not.

So what is the wise thing to do? Do we refuse them admittance and the opportunity to learn, or admit them and witness their disappointment as they fail their course work because they do not have the basic learning skills?

No, neither of these decisions demonstrates wisdom or leadership.

The wise decision was, and is, to provide them with the help and assistance they need to acquire the basic tools to learn. These are the skills of learning that their peers, who are here today receiving scholarships, likely already have.

There are two quotes that I want to share with you. Martin Luther King said, and I quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Martin Luther King also said, “Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

To the students being honored here today, have the courage to use wisdom in your daily lives. Examine facts and make informed decisions. And be leaders amongst your peers.

To the community leaders, the leaders of business, church and State that are here today, use wisdom to make the tough decisions that will propel our community and state forward. Support these students and the students that follow by supporting their education. That is a wise investment that will continue to pay itself back.

Thank you.

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Last Updated: 3/6/18