Schools count on alumni to inspire next generation of students

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PAWTUCKET — For former students who work at their alma maters, their high school formation, continued education and work experience has been the path that has led them back home and prepared them with the tools to help the next generation.

Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket has more than 7,000 alumni around the world. Many now walk the halls of the Academy in a new role, inspired to help current students discover their own God-given gifts and build the foundation for future success. Currently, nine alumni work at Saint Raphael, plus a few spouses of alumni as well as several parents.

Malaina Murphy’s hope was always to come back to Saint Raphael in some capacity. After graduating in 1985, she continued her education at Rhode Island College before going on to Boston University for her master’s in Social Work. She worked in child welfare for more than 20 years and then returned to the Academy as a guidance counselor in 2009.

“I had many teachers who inspired, guided and supported me throughout my time as a student and throughout my lifetime,” she said. “I try to do the same for my students. It is my way of giving back. Saints holds many special memories for me which is one of the main reasons working at my alma mater is a blessing.”

Murphy and her husband chose to send their two daughters, a junior and a freshman, to Saint Ray’s and feel that their teachers, especially those who graduated from the Academy themselves, are all rooted in the mission of St. John Baptist de La Salle.

“Some teachers have committed their professional lives to St. Raphael Academy and have taught generations of families, mine included,” she said. “Our students are not only educated in the classroom but also by the many experiences Saints offers as well as the faculty and staff of Saint Raphael Academy. I am proud to be a member of the Saints community.”

Erika A. Paiva teaches physical education and health at her alma mater. She graduated in 2000 and began working at Saint Ray’s in 2016 after moving back to Rhode Island from San Diego. Paiva explained that she always felt a strong calling to return to St. Raphael Academy and give back to the community that helped mold her into the person she is today.

“Saints is just not a school, but a family. We have a motto, ‘Once a Saint, always a Saint.’ Those words have stuck with me since the day I stepped on campus in the Fall of 1996. Saints is a very special place. I believed that in order to continue the Saints tradition, people like myself need to come back and do their part in paying it forward. The sacrifices my parents made in order to provide my sister and I the opportunity to attend Saints was huge. I look back and believe we were blessed for having such amazing parents to ensure we received the best education possible.”

Paiva feels that she has the unique and rare privilege to be co-workers with former teachers and mentors.

“I feel like life always comes ‘full-circle’ and my path has taken me exactly where I was meant to travel to. I love waking up every morning with a smile and the feeling of walking on campus knowing I will have a chance to be the mentor to my students.”

Across the state, Portsmouth Abbey, a tight-knit Catholic boarding school, is home to 360 students and more than 140 faculty and staff members. The school also has more than 4,000 alumni living around the globe, but for some, home is close and familiar — on Cory’s Lane along Narragansett Bay.

For so many, those formative years left an impact which inspired them return in the position of educator. Ann Gallagher graduated from the Abbey in 2013 and after receiving her degree from Notre Dame in Liberal Arts and Classics, she returned to Portsmouth to accept a position teaching Humanities and Latin, live in a girl’s dormitory as a houseparent, and coach three seasons of sports. As a student, she recognized that the Abbey took seriously its mission to provide an education in light of the Catholic faith and the Benedictine tradition. She added that her appreciation for the school mission has only deepened in her new role.

“The education I received was much more than an academically rigorous one — it was an education in virtue,” said Gallagher. “The students’ and faculty’s shared commitment to this community life makes the Abbey a wonderful place to call home.”

The Catholic boarding school offers a unique academic, social and spiritual experience, with Benedictine monks who own and operate the school, working as administrators and educators. The community recognizes that the spiritually passionate influence of the monks inspires each student. For Dr. Blake Billings, class of 1977, who serves as head of the Christian Doctrine Department, the monastic community at Portsmouth — its life of prayer and study — had a profound impact on him as a student.

“The prayerful and sincere search for God that I witnessed, centered in Christ and in his love for us, served as a wakeup call for me,” Dr. Billings shared. “My own journey then led me eventually to the study of philosophy and theology, and back to the Abbey to continue that search, now also in the context of my own classroom. It has been for me, as Saint John writes, ‘grace upon grace.’”

As director of admissions, Steven Pietraszek, class of 1996, is commonly asked how the school has changed over time.

“Our student body has grown since my days as a student in both size and geographic reach. Our facilities have expanded and improved in countless ways,” said Pietraszek. “However, the best part about this education is that we remain true to our mission and values. As an alum, I have a special connection to this school. I want to ensure students are benefitting from the same wonderful experiences I had while also working to make every experience better for future generations.”

Having alumni as faculty members is an important aspect of life for schools throughout Rhode Island. Mitchell Green, class of 2011, who now teaches in the science department and is an assistant coach for the boy’s football, hockey and lacrosse programs, feels this is true of his alma mater.

“I feel that our alumni faculty have seen firsthand how transformative this school can be and they use that experience to inform their work,” said Green. “Personally, I want all of my students to see the benefits of an Abbey education just as I did. When I was a student I saw how much Portsmouth Abbey teachers enjoyed their jobs and how much care they put into their work. I knew that if I ever ended up teaching I would want to go back since the Abbey has such a special place in my heart.”