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Commencement 2017: Celebration, Reflection and a Call to Action

NBC 10 Anchor Patrice Wood and Matthew Fanikos ’17 urge vision and conscience to create a well-lived life as 1,075 students earn bachelor's and master's degrees

BRISTOL, R.I. – Bearing colorful caps with stories of where their journey takes them next, the processional of 1,075 members of the Roger Williams University Class of 2017 joined thousands of attendees under the tent on Saturday, May 20, to culminate their college careers at the University’s annual Commencement exercises.

In addition to awarding bachelor’s and master’s degrees to the candidates, University President Donald J. Farish conferred honorary doctorates to two local leaders: NBC 10 anchor Patrice Wood and Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, chair of the Women & Infants Health Care Alliance, president and CEO of Women’s Care, former medical director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island, and a clinical associate professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School.

They were selected, Farish said, because their life work and their commitment to making Rhode Island a better place embodies the university's institutional mission of strengthening society through teaching and learning.

Wood, who has been reporting the news at Channel 10 (WJAR) in Rhode Island for more than 37 years, delivered the keynote address to a crowd of some 7,000 graduates and attendees. The Class of 2017 included her husband, Paul Pabis, who received a master’s degree in leadership from RWU, and her daughter, Stephanie, who earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

In her keynote address, Wood urged graduates to have the perseverance and vision to move forward toward “fantastic destinations.” While others may have faltered under the challenges of breaking into the male-dominated broadcast anchor world in the 1970s, Wood said she used the criticisms to improve her skills and stand firm in the face of prejudice.

“Put your energy into something you love and something meaningful. The opportunities are right in front of you,” Wood said. “Think about how you can apply your own unique talent, polished here at Roger Williams University, to make the world better. You will never give up. You will be perennial learners. That, dear graduates, will be a life well-lived.”

President Farish, in his remarks, noted the achievements of the Class of 2017 and their commitment to improving their community.

"I can say to you with certainty that you are the best prepared class of students I’ve ever seen," Farish said. "That’s testimony to who you are as an individual and to what this university represents from the standpoint of its values and the commitment of its faculty and staff."

Whether embarking on a study-abroad semester, bringing public health education or building water-purification systems in rural villages in Central and South America, or using their “academic skills to solve problems in the nonprofit world” through the Community Partnerships Center, Farish noted that this is only a small sampling of the ways graduates have applied their knowledge beyond the classroom to serve local and global communities while also preparing themselves for success in the real world.

“These young people, and so many others at RWU, recognize that living a great life is not only about finding a great job but also about helping to make the world a better place,” Farish said. “When we say Roger Williams’s mission is to strengthen society, these are the programs and students that bring meaning to that phrase, and I could not be more proud of them.”

Earlier in the ceremony, student speaker Matthew Fanikos ’17 emphasized that although the Class of 2017 arrived at Roger Williams from different homes around the world, they all grew together, overcame many challenges, spurred each other on when they needed support, and ultimately, “found meaning in everything that transpired” in their college careers.

“Another byproduct of these obstacles is not only the nostalgia we will feel whenever Roger Williams comes to mind, but a better understanding of the three core questions: Who am I? What can I know? And how should I act?’” said Fanikos, a philosophy major who was lauded for being named to the All-Academic Wrestling Team, as well as performing in theatre productions and with the improv club. “We learn that the ‘I’ needs to constantly develop its critical conscience through the skeptic habit of suspending judgment and becoming open to different types of ideas and possibilities. This practice taught us that evidence really counts, which allowed us to challenge our unavoidable prejudices and stereotypes, as well as more intelligently evaluate the problems of the world.”

Fanikos noted that experiencing social justice-based events, like “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes,” which exposed students to the prevalence of domestic violence, and “Day of Silence,” which raises awareness about marginalized populations, has instilled in them the “duty to contemplate these problems of our culture, such as racism, mental health, health care, immigration, and the complexities of both gender identity and gender equality.”  

“When life starts to pressure us, we must look inward at who we are as individuals, better understood from our consideration of those core questions,” Fanikos said. “We will recognize our capacity to make responsible decisions developed since day one at Roger Williams University. The world is eagerly awaiting us, and with these evolving virtues we will rise up to any occasion that Roger Williams has prepared us for and we will flourish.”

The entire graduating Class of 2017 totaled 1,075, including undergraduate students, graduate students earning master’s degrees and students graduating from the School of Continuing Studies. Among the undergraduates in the graduating class, the five most populous majors included art and architectural history, architecture, psychology, marketing, and criminal justice. And in what has become an annual tradition, 15 students earned the President’s Core Values Medallions in recognition of their academic, professional and community-based accomplishments.

One day earlier, 117 students graduated from Roger Williams University School of Law, where David Wilkins – a groundbreaking Harvard Law School professor and onetime clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall – delivered the keynote address, tracing the history of Roger Williams’s fight for freedom of conscience and his opposition to slavery.

“You are the progeny of that amazing legacy, and it is not just a legacy in the history books for you,” Wilkins said. “You join a tradition in which those values carved at the top of the Supreme Court – `Equal Justice Under Law’ – are a living reality. But they are only a living reality if you continue to fight for them.”

During the ceremony, the law school presented an honorary degree to Janet L. Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and RWU Law Professor Bruce I. Kogan, a founding faculty member at RWU Law who twice served as Dean, and is one of the state's leading experts on alternatives to litigation.