Class of 2023 commencement speaker delivers message of acceptance and equality
The Community College of Rhode Island gave William Soly everything he could ask for in addition to the support he never knew he needed.
Soly, a Rhode Island Promise scholar, first-generation college graduate, and this year’s student speaker at the CCRI’s 58th commencement ceremony graduates Thursday with his associate degree in General Studies with a concentration in Education, Government, & Human Services.
The 19-year-old North Smithfield, RI, native is transferring to Rhode Island College through the Joint Admissions Agreement (JAA) program to become what he never had: a supportive high school teacher.
A self-described “below average” high school student, Soly never thought he’d finish college – much less make the Dean’s List twice – but he found his true calling at CCRI, completing a journey of self-discovery that came full circle when he came out as transgender in 2021.
“When I came to CCRI, I was met with kindness, patience, and encouragement. I finally felt like I belonged,” Soly says in his commencement address.
“CCRI truly made me believe in myself and my capabilities.”
At CCRI, Soly quickly found his educational path and exceled in the classroom. His professors noticed his potential from the beginning. English professor Dr. Beth Anish loaned Soly a copy of an Emily Dickinson novel at the end of the Spring 2022 semester and was surprised to learn that Soly had not only read it during the summer, but returned it to her at the start of the fall semester with a note attached thanking her for the recommendation and telling her he wanted to pursue a career in education.
“To see this student go from ‘I don't think I belong here,’ to ‘I want to be a teacher’ in one year reinforces why we do what we do,” Dr. Anish said. “I am so proud of how far he's come, especially in the area of believing in himself.”
CCRI also gave him the courage to be himself. His mother, Misty, serves on the Rhode Island chapter of PFLAG – formerly known as "Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays” – and his friends knew he was gay since middle school, so Soly always had support at home, but even as an openly gay high-school student, he still didn’t feel like himself, which is when he began “connecting the dots” to his transgender identity.
Stoly admits he couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant to be transgender as a teenager because it was – and still is – so stigmatized, and he had witnessed two trans students in his high school struggle with their identity due to lack of support and understanding, so he was hesitant at first to tell others. He refers to his apprehension as “internalized transphobia” – not transphobia in the context of prejudice or hatred toward transgender people, but more of a fear and misunderstanding of what he was experiencing internally.
CCRI helped quell those fears. The support he received in and out of the classroom and the comfort level he felt from his first day on campus gave him the confidence to embrace his identity and not be afraid of what others might think.
“I was so worried at first about what people might say,” Soly said. “I could always talk about being gay, but it’s harder coming out socially as trans. It’s very misunderstood and that’s the reason that it took me that long.
“Coming here, it was a whole new world – the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced. This is a much more accepting environment, and it helped to see more people like myself here. It was a nice change of pace. Coming to CCRI was the best decision I ever made.”
Soly’s message at Thursday’s commencement ceremony is one of acceptance, equality, and encouragement. He outlines his fears of falling through the cracks at CCRI and failing in his pursuit of an education – a fear many first-time college students experience – and brilliantly weaves his own personal journey into his academic success.
In addition to majoring in Secondary Education at RIC and becoming a high school teacher, Soly hopes to become an advocate for other trans students and teenagers who struggle with the decision to come out to family, friends, or peers.
“A lot of people that I talk to are younger and have no idea what they’re going through,” he said. “A lot of people are scared to make that decision [to come out] in today’s world. It’s terrifying. My hope is to normalize it so that one day I can speak to larger groups and bring to light all the good that comes from the trans community. I want others to realize that we’re all just people no matter our identity.
“We’re all the same. We’re all humans. We’re just living together at the same time.”