PROVIDENCE — Cheers greeted the graduates of the class of 2017 as they took their seats at the 99th annual Providence College commencement exercises on Sunday, May 21, at the Dunkin Donuts Center. The commencement ceremony marked the close of a milestone year for the college as students and faculty commemorated 100 years of Providence College education.
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“It’s exciting, but it’s so sad,” said Rachel Laudone, a graduating senior from Westerly, as she lined up with her classmates prior to the ceremony. “I just got chills because that was the first time it was a real thing.”
A total of 1,153 students received degrees on Sunday, including undergraduate day students, graduate students and students of the School of Continuing Studies. Auxiliary Bishop Robert C. Evans of the Diocese of Providence offered the invocation, followed by an opening address by President Father Brian J. Shanley, who reminded those gathered of the college’s and Dominican order’s longstanding motto, “Veritas.”
“You will be continually changing for the rest of your lives. If that change is powered by the truth, you will flourish,” he told the graduates.
Father Shanley called to mind the college’s goal of educating students in the pursuit and assessment of truth and emphasized the continued need for such education in a culture where the concept of objective truth is increasingly under attack. Recalling the Gospel quote written on the tower of Ruane Hall, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” he urged the graduates to always seek the truth and allow this foundation of a Providence College education to continue to inform their lives.
“I say farewell to you in the hope that you will be dedicated to living in the truth,” he said.
Following the awarding of degrees, speaker and honorary degree recipient Dr. Roy Peter Clark reflected on the enduring values and changing cultural realities of his own Providence College education. A graduate of the class of 1970, he attended the college during a volatile period of history shaped by the Civil Rights Movement and student activism against the war in Vietnam. It was also, he recalled, a time shaped by the music of The Beatles, whose songs he once played as a member of a student band and now repeated for the graduates on a keyboard onstage.
“For one moment, let me be the ghost of Providence College past and play for you one of my favorite party songs,” Clark said, launching into a rendition of “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Providence College experienced its own cultural upheaval during the 1960s as students, faculty and alumni debated the admittance of women as day students, a reality that would not occur until the fall of 1971. Asking the female graduates to stand, Clark recalled participating in the debates surrounding the issue and commended the young women for proving wrong an opponent who had once argued that female students could not excel at the college because they lacked the intellectual rigor of men.
“As the father of three daughters, I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to see the great women of Providence College here today,” he said, leading the audience in applause.
Reflecting on the meaning of the word “Providence,” Clark shared with the students the unexpected turns and series of rejections that led to his professional success. A renowned writing coach and founding faculty member of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, he began his career while still a student freelancing for The Providence Journal. Later, he received a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University and sought a teaching career.
“I applied to 100 jobs and got one job offer at a branch campus of Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama,” Clark said during an interview prior to the ceremony. “I didn’t want to go to Montgomery, Alabama, but it turned out to be one of the most significant and interesting and important moves of my professional and personal life.”
From there, he went on to work as a writing coach and staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times, whose owner founded the writing school that became the Poynter Institute. His career, he told the graduates, never followed an expected path, but always got him where he needed to be.
“God is the author of our lives, but he writes straight with crooked lines,” Clark said, sharing a saying he learned from an eighth grade Franciscan teacher.
In addition to Clark, honorary degree recipients included Barnaby Evans, the creator of WaterFire, Elizabeth Flynn, the retired vice chair of Marsh, Inc., Rabbi Wayne Franklin, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El and a leader in Catholic-Jewish interfaith dialogue, Dr. Richard Grace, professor emeritus of history and author of a history of the college, and Navyn Salem, founder of Edesia, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that produces therapeutic foods to treat malnourished children.
Following the ceremony, recent graduates gathered in the lobby of the Dunkin Donuts Center with their families to take photos and begin their individual celebrations. Colleen Janzekovich, a biology major from New Jersey who plans to study physical therapy at Columbia University, said she would advise incoming freshmen that their time at Providence College will go by quickly.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” she said.
Sabiel Rodriguez of Worcester, Mass., also said his time at the college flew by. A pre-law graduate, he plans to move to Cambridge and work as a paralegal while applying to law school.
“I can’t believe it. Four years went by so quickly,” he said as he gathered with family on the sidewalk outside the Dunkin Donuts Center.
Rodriguez’s mother, Carmen, smiled broadly when asked how she felt about her son’s graduation from Providence College.
“Wonderful and exciting. I am very happy,” she said.