2022 Commencement: Fascination with animals lured Marlene Severino back to college

Cranston resident graduates with degree in wildlife and conservation biology

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 27, 2022 – Even as a child, Marlene Severino was determined to see animals up close, no matter what they were.

“I used to walk straight up to animals and my mom used to get so upset with me,” she said, “because I didn’t understand that we should be respecting an animal’s space. Whether it was a dog, a squirrel, or a raccoon, it didn’t matter what it was. I just wanted to see it up close.”

That fascination has continued through her wildlife and conservation biology major and a marine biology minor at the University of Rhode Island. Her love for animals included an obsession with the Disney movie “101 Dalmatians,” which included Severino telling her mother she wanted to be a Dalmatian when she grew up.

Marlene Severino at Oakland Beach in Warwick.

But Severino’s life was no Disney movie. Her father died when she was a year old, leaving her mother to raise her and her sister alone. “I grew up very poor and lived in a lot of housing projects throughout Providence,” Severino said.

Her first attempt at college came in fits and starts. She attended the Community College of Rhode Island for a time, but misinformation from an adviser left her taking courses that she didn’t need. Personal issues and a lack of money also contributed to her decision to quit attending classes.

“I decided, ‘I’m just going to make money.’ I had a decent job. My focus wasn’t on school the way it should have been,” she said.

Eventually, though, her dreams of working with wildlife lured her back to CCRI, where she earned her associate’s degree “the way I should have done initially. I’m 31 years old. I’m not the traditional student at all,” said Severino, of Cranston, who graduates in May from URI.

At the University, Severino felt the need to “finish things properly,” and she quickly began to earn good grades. She had tunnel vision, she said, and her focus was on her classes. “In the meantime, though, I was doing a bunch of jobs to get money for school. Honestly, I’m still doing a bunch of jobs.”

She entered URI as a junior and the first course that really influenced her was one taught by Brett Still, a senior lecturer in the Department of Natural Resources Science. “Everything that I was learning in his class was just definitely spot on and reinforced what I was interested in doing with my life,” she said.

Senior year saw her in another course that influenced her professional world view. “I met Brian Gerber. He had us seeing both sides to everything. So rather than just being closed minded, he made me think of the other possibilities that occur in the world and all the ways that people are utilizing different environmental resources just to stay alive.”

Gerber, an assistant professor in Natural Resources Science, recognized Severino’s dedication, and advocated for her when she was nominated for the 2022 Academic Excellence Award for the Wildlife Conservation Biology major – which she won.

“Marlene has an amazing work ethic, has been gaining loads of field/lab experience, and is just an impressive person,” Gerber said.

Severino spends her time working as a research assistant on campus, along with a job at Rhode Island Hospital and as a bartender in Newport.

“I do just about everything. I’m spread as thinly as you possibly can be,” said Severino, who is applying for jobs in Rhode Island and Florida as commencement approaches.

As she readies herself for the next step on her path, Severino felt it was important to send a message to others like herself.

“Inclusivity is a passion of mine. When I first got into my science classes in college I felt out of my league and inferior knowing there weren’t many women, especially Latinas, in the STEM fields,” she said. “I was in classes with people who came from wealthy backgrounds and had a lot of opportunities I did not get. Getting accepted into URI was when I told myself I was going to finish what I started and prove to myself that I belong in the field. I hope to be a person that someone can look at and identify with and know that if they are passionate about something, their background does not have to hinder their success.”

Hugh Markey wrote this press release.