Sister Jane Gerety, in final commencement address as president, tells Salve Regina grads she learned most by listening to their stories

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NEWPORT — After 10 years of leading Salve Regina University as its president, Religious Sister of Mercy Jane Gerety is leaving as a student.

“I want to be a student for the rest of my life,” Sister Gerety said to the 505 graduates who received their bachelor’s degrees during Salve Regina’s 69th commencement exercises on May 19.

Sister Gerety became Salve Regina’s seventh president in July 2009. She arrived on the Newport campus from Saint Joseph’s Health System in Atlanta, where she served as a senior vice president, sponsorship and corporate compliance officer before being appointed the executive board officer in 2008.

In her last public event as Salve Regina’s president, Sister Gerety addressed the Class of 2019 as its commencement keynote speaker. She reflected on her decade at the helm, sharing insights into the tough lessons she learned firsthand from listening and speaking with the campus community on a host of challenging and complex topics.

“Mistakes I’ve made in this respect were great teachers,” Sister Gerety said. “I’ve learned the most here at Salve by listening to people’s stories — faculty, staff, students…. The understanding I’ve gained from people who are different from me has helped me to recognize our common humanity.”

Prior to her tenure at Saint Joseph’s Health System, Sister Jane — who has also taught at the junior and high school levels — was the academic dean at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, where she also served as English professor and director of university’s public leadership program.

In 1995, Sister Jane joined Salve Regina’s board of trustees, and chaired its committee that rewrote the university’s mission statement, which reaffirmed its Mercy mission and Catholic intellectual tradition.

After being inaugurated as Salve’s president in 2009, Sister Jane worked to introduce new academic programs, expand student scholarships and oversee a major renovation to the university’s flagship academic building.

But beyond that, Sister Jane was known across the Salve community as a student’s president. She made herself present to students, often eating in the same dining halls and attending their events and games.

“She’s definitely very present in the community,” said Nicholas Palumbo, 22, a Lincoln resident who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Administration of Justice.

“It’s sad to see her go but she leaves a legacy behind that definitely will live on, that’s for sure,” said Palumbo, who plans to become a Newport police officer.

Jasmine Santiago, 22, a resident of Meriden, Connecticut, who was also graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Administration of Justice, said a 30-minute conversation with Sister Gerety four years ago convinced her to attend Salve Regina as a freshman.

“She was the nicest person I’ve ever met,” Santiago, a member of the university women’s rugby team, said. “She was just so warm and so welcoming. We sat down, talked about what I was interested in and why she thought I should come here. It just kind of fit.”

In her keynote speech, Sister Gerety told the graduates that she saw them as the class “that found its voice” when she reviewed everything they had spoken out in defense of: promoting diversity and the dignity of women, cancer research, protecting the environment, combating human trafficking, as well as what needed “to be fixed” at Salve.

“My message today with regard to the voices you’ve found: Don’t ever shut up,” said Sister Gerety, who commended the graduates for recognizing “the value of knowledge, advice, passion and kindness” from their professors and friends.

“I liked this description of friendship here,” Sister Gerety said, “We laughed until we cried and cried until we laughed.”

In their time at Salve Regina, Sister Gerety also noted that they had many opportunities to learn the value of quiet and reflection, whether that was walking alone on the Cliff Walk, driving on Ocean Drive or watching “the magnificent” Newport sunsets.

“For some of you, your faith in God was strengthened; and many of you discovered your identity, an identity that allowed you to go out of your comfort zone, deepen your passion and learn the value of being inquisitive,” Sister Gerety said. “These are things that you want to take with you and I hope that you will.”

Santiago, who plans to apply for a state trooper position in Connecticut, said her experiences on campus “were amazing.”

“The scenery is amazing, the people are great. I absolutely love the campus here,” she said.

Susan Phillips, a New Jersey resident who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration Marketing, said she was pleased that Sister Gerety was her commencement speaker.

“It was nice to end our four years with her since we started here with her,” said Phillips, who plans to pursue her graduate studies at Salve.

“Being in Newport is incredible,” she said. “I loved all my faculty members and all my friends. I don’t want to leave them.”