NEWPORT — Accompanied by his service dog, John O’Brien of Jamestown beamed as he held his master’s degree in administration of justice and homeland security from Salve Regina University.
“It feels great. This is quite a school. It’s been a real great place. The faculty here is fantastic,” said O’Brien, an Army veteran and retired lieutenant colonel who served four tours in Iraq before being wounded by a rocket attack.
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O’Brien was one of 653 individuals who received degrees during Salve Regina University’s 65th commencement on May 17. Held on the Oceanside lawn of McAuley Hall, the commencement was held under perfect sunny spring conditions.
Michelle Kwan, the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history who is now a State Department official and Special Olympics International board member, addressed the graduates who received 451 baccalaureate degrees, 192 master’s degrees, and 10 doctorates.
Kwan, who was also awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters, told the graduates and their family members in attendance that one of the first lessons she learned as an Olympic figure skater was how to fall.
“But the true test is how we recover,” Kwan said. “We can all be that kind of person, taking our fair share of tumbles and falls, but rising with grace and finishing what we began. To me, that is what grit means.”
Kwan, 34, who won an unprecedented 43 championships, including two Olympic medals, urged the graduates to cultivate an “indomitable spirit,” to dream big and chase after their goals, even if it means overcoming adversity along the way. She also urged the graduates to adapt to life’s changing circumstances, to change course when necessary and to be willing to give new things a try.
“Prepare for the new, no matter how unexpected,” Kwan said. “Don’t linger on the old, no matter how comfortable.”
Newport Harbor Corp. Chairman and longtime University Trustee J. Timothy O’Reilly was also awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters during the ceremony.
“This is a wonderful community. I’ve come to enjoy all my years here,” said O’Reilly, who reflected on all that Salve Regina University had taught its graduates.
“I think you’ve hopefully learned how to live here, not just be academically successful, but learned what a full life is,” O’Reilly said.
Newport City Councilor Justin S. McLaughlin spoke on behalf of the city to bid the graduates farewell. McLaughlin spoke about the university’s relationship with the city and noted several volunteer initiatives that Salve Regina’s students are involved with in the community.
“Salve is an important part of the fabric of our community,” McLaughlin said. “Your presence here for the last four years has been an important part of Newport and I appreciate that you chose us.”
Congressman David N. Cicilline also congratulated the Class of 2015, and urged the graduates to use their skills, energy, determination, courage and idealism to benefit Rhode Island and the country. He noted the revolutionary contributions of young adults in technology and healthcare that have already made significant impacts in the world.
“Everywhere around us, we see that young people are using their energy and persistence to do great things,” Cicilline said.
Kwan, who is also the wife of 2014 Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate Clay Pell, the grandson of the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, told the Class of 2015 that Salve Regina University had prepared them to “think outside the box,” to believe in themselves and recognize excellence in their peers.
“While we pursue our goals, we shouldn’t put off enjoying life, thinking that happiness awaits us in this far off destination,” said Kwan, who added that she learned the importance of surrounding herself with good people, a lesson she said that the graduates had learned at Salve Regina.
“Don’t hesitate to lean on one another,” Kwan said. “Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Claudia Maine, a nurse who graduated with her master’s degree in healthcare administration, said her experience at Salve Regina had been “fantastic.”
“I loved the whole community here,” said Maine, who also attended Salve Regina University for her undergraduate degree.
Meanwhile, Khalid Almulhim, a student from Saudi Arabia who graduated with a master’s degree in financial management, said he was going to miss the university and Newport.
“It was an amazing experience, a wonderful experience,” said Almulhim, a pilot in the Saudi Arabian Air Force who said he was also completing a course of study at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport before he returns home to Saudi Arabia.