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Through trying times, CCRI's Class of 2023 excels at its highest level

Through trying times, CCRI's Class of 2023 excels at its highest level

Amidst a sea of decorative caps, multi-colored stoles, and smiling faces basking in the glow of their academic achievement, the Community College of Rhode Island capped the 2022–23 academic year with its 58th commencement ceremony at The Amica Mutual Pavilion in Providence.

Several hundred graduates from the Class of 2023 – along with family and friends – gathered at The AMP to celebrate in what will be the final commencement under the leadership of CCRI President Meghan Hughes, who is leaving the college at the beginning of September. [See full photo gallery]

The mood, per usual, was festive as graduates moved their tassels from the right side of their caps to their left, signaling the end of one journey and, for many, the beginning of another, whether at a four-year college or in the workforce.

In her commencement address, Hughes discussed the idea of enduring “trying times” on the journey to success, referencing singer Darlene Love, who dealt with personal and professional struggles before finding stardom in her late 40s, a late start by industry standards. Said Hughes, “trying times” can “point to the idea of working hard for something” or “the idea that we are attempting something.”

“I know many of your stories and there have been difficult periods, days, where life felt extremely hard,” Hughes said. “These are the trying times, the tough times, we can all picture in our mind’s eye in our own lives. [Commencement] celebrates the effort, the extraordinary work, the attempting, “the trying” each of you brought to your classes to complete your degrees. No matter what stood in your way, you pushed it out of your path, and you kept walking toward your degree.

“I am so incredibly proud of each one of you, and so inspired by this class. I will carry this day in my heart for the rest of my life.”

Student commencement speaker and North Smithfield, RI, native William Soly – CCRI’s first openly transgender keynote speaker – spoke of the “trying times” he endured in high school before enrolling at CCRI. A below-average high school student by his own admission, Soly was told he wouldn’t succeed in college, but CCRI helped him believe in himself and his capabilities and offered him a safe environment in which to pursue his education.

Soly, who came out as trans in 2022 and will transfer to Rhode Island College in the fall to become “the supportive high school teacher” he never had, thanked CCRI faculty and staff for the encouragement both in and out of the classroom.

“To everyone graduating today, no matter the doubts you had or the hardships you faced, remember what you have accomplished today can never be taken away,” Soly said. “Thanks to CCRI, I went from thinking I didn’t even belong in college to make the Dean’s List twice.”

The “trying times” and hardships endured by graduates were a common theme throughout the afternoon at CCRI’s 58th commencement. Class of 2023 gradate Tim Ruel, a 49-year-old Cumberland, RI, native, earned his associate degree in General Studies and plans to transfer to a four-year college to study Psychology. After graduating high school in 1991, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and deployed twice to Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp during his 23 years of service. He spent time working for Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, a non-profit organization that provides assistance for homeless veterans, before re-enrolling at CCRI for the fourth time in Fall 2022.

An on-again, off-again student since 1994, Ruel returned to college at 47 unsure of what he’d face, but received the support necessary to finally complete his associate degree. His dream job is to work with veterans who suffer from substance abuse issues.

“I loved it. I would recommend CCRI to anybody, especially if you’re not sure what your path is,” Ruel said. “Go to CCRI. It’s a great choice.”

Anthony Martin, a 25-year-old Fort Lauderdale, FL, native who moved to Rhode Island seven years ago to start a family, earned his associate degree in Communication & Film/Media. As an out-of-towner, Martin wasn’t sure where to begin, but always dreamt of editing music videos and working in the entertainment industry, so he enrolled in Year Up Rhode Island, which connects young adults to professional careers in the tech industry. A year later, he chose CCRI to earn his degree and begin the transfer process to the University of Rhode Island, where he will pursue his bachelor’s degree beginning next fall.

“The classes were informative and, most importantly, intimate, so you always felt like you could get help when you needed it, especially if you were struggling in a particular area,” said Martin, a husband and father of a two- and a five-year-old. “CCRI provided me with the opportunity to continue my education and get the classes I needed to move on to the next chapter.”

Syrian immigrant Mahmoud Bilal, 21, who now lives in Providence, RI, delivered one of the more poignant messages of “trying times” in his brief address. Bilal and his family escaped the Syrian Civil War so he could pursue an education in the United States, but he needed to work to help support his family. There were times when Bilal didn’t think his goal of attending college was possible, but he conquered his fears and found the support he needed at CCRI. Bilal is continuing his education in the fall to pursue a career in Legal Studies so he can help those traveling the same road he once traveled.

“My advice to my fellow graduates is don’t forget the effort it took to get this far,” Bilal said. “We are all capable of more than we know. But is up to us to find out.”

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