Cool. Clammy. Cloudy. Crowded. Calm.
Those words could be used to describe commencement ceremonies at the University of Rhode Island on Sunday, but they weren’t sentiments echoed by any of the participants of the ceremony.
“I feel like this is my next step toward completing my long dream,” said triple-major graduate Douglas Tondreau, holding his young son, both with a smile across their faces.
The ambitious, conscientious member of the class of 2011’s Talent Development program is a timely success story of the university. URI’s Talent Development program was founded in 1968 in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to foster unique opportunities for an education at the university for students of color and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Tondreau, originally from Haiti, earned degrees in political science, philosophy, and African-American studies. He has roots in New England, as he attended high school in Pawtucket and Boston.
More than 3,283 undergraduate and 711 graduate students received degrees at the university this weekend.The oldest graduate was 81, and the youngest 19. Among them were 41 from Barrington. Click here to see the list.
The top five states represented were Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Honorary degrees were awarded to Victor Baxt, the chairman of Teknor Apex Co.; Alan G. Hassenfeld, the former Chairman of the Board and CEO of Hasbro, Inc.; and Margaret Leinen, the executive director of the Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
Many distinguished guests were in attendance for Sunday’s jubilations, including Governor Lincoln Chafee, Board of Governors for Higher Education Chairman Lorne Adrain, representatives David Cicilline and James Langevin, and His Excellency Elkanah Odembo, the Kenyan Ambassador to the United States, whose niece Alice Odhiambo graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences.
Many eyes were presumably drawn by keynote speaker Cory A. Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ and one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2011. Booker was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters.
In his address, Booker spoke of a lesson he learned from his grandfather. He remembers being told by his grandfather to stand up like those who he never met stood for him.
“They fought for me,” Booker said. “They struggled for me, they scrubbed toilets for me, they bled the soil of this nation red. We must stand up. Class of 2011, you must stand because this world needs you. It needs your uniqueness, it needs your divinity, it needs your love. You must stand up because change will not roll in, as King said, on the wheels of an inevitability, it must be carried in on the backs of soldiers who day in and day out stand up for it, you must stand.”
Another URI success story was student speaker Valerie Damon-Leduc, a centennial scholar from Woonsocket.
“She had a fear of public speaking but overcame her fear by taking as many public speaking classes as she could,” URI President David Dooley said. “As Valerie stated she has ‘come full circle’ when she was notified that she was chosen as this year’s Commencement Speaker.
“Right now ‘ideal’ is not the word that best describes the world that we are about to enter,” Damon-Leduc said. “The word that I think many would choose is chaotic.”
She further described how such a situation presents an opportunity for creativity and growth, contrary to any initial assumption. Her positive outlook echoed throughout countless ears on the quadrangle, and it was met by cheers.
“We will thrive wherever we end up. So now as I think of all of you, your greatness, your endurance, and your willingness to question the status quo, my thoughts are no longer, ‘Wow are we ready for this?’ It’s more like, ‘Are they ready for us?’ because we’re the type that doesn’t give up. The type that doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Several graduates interviewed after commencement also expressed the optimism of Damon-Leduc.
Public relations major Claire Golomn, of Berkeley Heights, NJ, already has a job interview set up for when she returns home after the weekend. Colin Brown of Saunderstown says he felt “liberated,” and has potential plans to move to California.
“It feels really surreal,” said graduate Bill Barry of North Kingstown. Barry will work locally over the summer, and also has plans to move to California.
“When I get my J.D. and my masters I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something," triple-major Tondreau said. "I want to get involved in the public sector … hopefully get involved with a non-profit organization.”
He hopes to enact change in the pharmaceutical industry, and has already been accepted to law school. He also is seeking to get into a police academy, and has an interview lined up for it.
He is not alone in his accomplishments. It was mentioned that there were more than 30 students in the class of 2011 earning three degrees. Tondreau said he’s excited to see where ends up, since like many others, he’s not exactly sure where that is now.
“After law school [I’m going] wherever life takes me," Tondreau said. "You really can’t plan those things. You gotta go with the flow.”
See the six-minute video to get a look at Sunday's pomp and circumstance.