PROVIDENCE — Providence College awarded undergraduate degrees to 961 seniors last Sunday at the Dunkin Donuts Center in downtown Providence where commencement speaker Steve Pemberton called on graduates to lead lives of fulfillment and service.
The college also granted master’s degrees to 202 students in business, education, history, math, and theology. In addition, 19 students received degrees through the School of Continuing Education.
Pemberton, a human rights advocate and the former chief diversity officer at Walgreens, urged graduates to be “human lighthouses.” Pemberton, who now works as the chief human resources officer at Workhuman in Massachusetts, drew on his own personal experience growing up in foster care and being adopted by a school coach to give students an example of how someone can be a lighthouse.
Just like the 21 lighthouses that dot the Rhode Island coast, graduates, Pemberton said, should look for ways to direct and protect others. “The lighthouse is steady, watchful, and humble and it’s always illuminating the path to stability and safety,” Pemberton said.
Such service is needed given current events in the United States, Pemberton said.
“Save us,” he asked graduates, saying that our society is engaged in a “colossal struggle over our identity.”
“There is this feeling that we will perhaps be unable to say that we left the world better than we found it,” Pemberton added.
Some class statistics suggest that graduates are already well on their way to heeding Pemberton’s call. Students volunteer about 50,000 hours a year for more than one hundred organizations, including the San Miguel School, the RI Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity.
Pemberton also reflected on his friendship with PC basketball coach Ed Cooley, recalling their earlier years working together at UMass Dartmouth, when they would play basketball together and discuss what kinds of fathers they wanted to someday be.
“The whisper of a dream that lies in your heart today can actually someday, one day come to pass,” Pemberton said.
Permberton was among six recipients of honorary degrees. Sister Larraine Lauter, O.S.U., executive director of Water With Blessings; Marta Martinez, founder and executive director of Rhode Island Latino Arts; Marifrances McGinn, the retired vice president and general counsel for the college; and John Murphy Sr., founder, president, and CEO of Beara Capital, LLC, who also is the benefactor of a scholarship at the college. Physic professor Stephen Mecca received an honorary degree posthumously.
The Reverend Kenneth Letoile, O.P., the provincial for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph and chairman of the Providence College Corporation, delivering the invocation for the event. “Continue to guide these graduates of Providence College as they begin to travel a new path. You have been at their side during these formative years. May they never forget to remember your many blessings,” Father Letoile said.
The Reverend Brian Shanley, O.P., president of Providence College, drew upon the writings of contemporary moral philosopher Susan Wolf, medieval poet Dante and mystic Julian of Norwich for insights on how to live lives that both lead to personal happiness and serve the common good.
“Love is the meaningful thread that weaves together lives into a coherent whole,” Father Shanley said.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza told seniors they were entering a “world of both opportunities and challenges.” Despite a seemingly ever-more connected world, Elorza said there is still a void that is left, leading to “diseases of despair”—loneliness, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
“We all want, we all need to be connected to something bigger than ourselves,” Elorza said. “I ask the graduating class to be the force that brings us together, to be the weavers that knit our community together, and to give us all a connection to something larger and greater than ourselves.”
Seniors also heard from Mark McGwin, the president of the Providence College National Alumni Association, who welcomed them to the ranks of the alumni. “You are forever a Friar,” he told students.
Caroline Cook, president of the senior class, briefly spoke. “As we move on to the next stage of our life, let’s take that sense of community that made us feel at home. We have the power to make others feel included the same way that we do right now, which is a gift,” Cook said.
Graduates are heading out to a wide range of vocations. About 12 percent of the class is continuing on to graduate school. Others are taking work with top employers like Amica, Bank of America, Boston Children’s Hospital, Goldman Sachs and The Walt Disney Company. Four students are being commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army. One student is entering the Dominicans.
After the ceremony, Roberto Afane, of El Salvador, told the Rhode Island Catholic that Pemberton’s message struck home for him as an international student. “The whole lighthouse metaphor was really touching,” Afane said.
Afane said he had mixed feelings about graduating, saying he is both excited to return to his home country but also sad to be leaving Providence. “I really fell in love with this city,” Afane said.
Darren Squillace, of Scituate, also felt conflicted. “I feel … a little anxious to get out into the real world but also excited,” he said.