‘You are extraordinary.’ URI celebrates Class of 2023 during 137th Commencement

Celebratory spirit pervaded despite rainy conditions

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 22, 2023 – Smiles and good cheer were the order of the day on Saturday during the University of Rhode Island’s 137th Commencement, despite inclement weather. As the rain came down on the Kingston Campus, President Marc Parlange offered some encouragement to the hardy ceremony attendees.

“It is a pleasure to join you here today,” Parlange said. “Look at all of you. You are extraordinary.” Acknowledging the rainy conditions and the persistence of those in attendance with a bit of humor, the president said, “The Swiftie fans at Gillette Stadium have no problem and neither do we.” 

HIGHEST URI HONOR: URI President Marc Parlange, right, congratulates honorary degree recipient Clint Smith, an interdisciplinary scholar and inspirational social justice educator, poet, author and renowned speaker. URI photo by Mike Salerno

The University conferred degrees on 3,331 undergraduate students Saturday and 769 graduate students Friday, from nearly every U.S. state and 31 countries.

Despite gray skies and rain, the historic Quadrangle was full of color as banners and flags waved in the breeze and graduates, faculty, administrators and family members carried umbrellas displaying every color of the rainbow. As graduates processed to their seats, they smiled and shouted out joyful greetings to family and friends.

“When I look out across the quad today, I see scholars, parents, family, and, most importantly, friends. You are a vibrant community built on relationships and partnerships that will last long after you leave here today,” Parlange said. “Once you’re a Rhody Ram, you’re a member of the Rhody Fam for life–and that family reaches every corner of the world and is there to help and support you.”

Keynote speaker Terry Tempest Williams, writer, naturalist and freedom-of-speech advocate, was also conferred an honorary doctorate of humane letters. In preparing her speech, she said she had the joy of meeting with 12 graduating seniors.

SMILING AND READY FOR THE ELEMENTS: These URI undergraduates are well equipped for a rainy Saturday. URI photo by Nora Lews

Acknowledging the conditions, she said, “Where I come from in the American Southwest, rain is a blessing. Let us receive it as such.” 

Of speaking with students, she said, “I asked you, what do you need to hear? This is what I heard: That uncertainty is okay. That we have a future. That what we learned in four years of college was important. That we have a responsibility to give something back to society with the skills we have developed in college,” Williams said.

“I want the world to stay as it is, one of you said. I am not satisfied with the world as it is, another of you replied. With racial injustices, environmental degradation, and gun violence, do we work within unjust systems or do we work outside of them?”

Others told Williams, “I want to hear how we take down the old structures and build something new, more inclusive, real, and creative. I need permission to break free. Encourage us to do what we love – to follow our hearts into our passions.”

In closing, she said, “What I want you to know is this: When I listened to you, when I heard you, there were two questions that come to mind: One, how can we help? And two, will you help me? These two questions, when they meet each other, define community.

“What I can tell you is this. You do have a future and it is yours to correct with the gifts that are ours. Congratulations. How can we help? We need you,” she said.

In addition to Williams, the University conferred honorary degrees upon Zaven Khachaturian, widely recognized as the “father” of modern Alzheimer’s disease research and mentor to countless researchers; Wendy Schmidt, a philanthropist and investor who has spent nearly two decades creating innovative, non-profit organizations to work with communities around the world for clean, renewable energy, resilient food systems, healthy oceans and the protection of human rights; and Clint Smith, an interdisciplinary scholar and inspirational social justice educator, poet, author and renowned speaker.

The undergraduate student speaker, Mazen Taman of Cranston, Rhode Island, who earned a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, played football for the Rhody Rams for four years. He told the audience that his family came to the United States from Egypt before he and his siblings were born.

UPLIFTING WORDS ON A RAINY DAY: Undergraduate student speaker Mazen Taman of Cranston, Rhode Island, delivers his address Saturday at URI’s Main Commencement Ceremonies. URI Photo by Michael Salerno

“I was raised in a one-parent household, where my mom worked tirelessly at multiple jobs and to keep my two brothers and me in school and sports,” Taman said. “My mother has been there every step of the way, offering endless support as I pursued my dreams. Today, I stand before you as a graduate of this esteemed university, and I know that this accomplishment would not have been possible without the unwavering love and encouragement of my mother. So, mom, look at us now–we made it. And to all the parents, guardians, friends and supporters who have helped us reach this point, we owe you a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.”

He urged his fellow graduates to “wake up every day motivated to be a better person than you were the day before. Our opportunities are endless, but with each step you take, I challenge you to ask yourself, ‘What is my why?’ When you know the answer, make sure you never forget it.”

A celebration of graduate students

MESSAGE FOR HER PEERS: Graduate student speaker Tania Silva de Oliveira speaks Friday night. URI photo by Mike Salerno

President Parlange said Friday night at the Ryan Center he hoped the graduates would take pride in their accomplishments and look back on their achievements with a deep sense of achievement.

“In one respect, you are just starting your careers and your path from here will take you beyond our campuses and into your field of work,” the president said. “You are also beginning a lifetime of engagement with the University, entering into a vibrant community of alumni who are decision-makers and leaders, entrepreneurs, industry pioneers, and game-changers in every corner of the world. This community–your network of hundreds of thousands of alums–is a powerful asset that you can leverage for a lifetime. Stay connected, tap into it, give back to it, and use the resources it provides, which you have so richly deserved.”

Friday’s ceremony also featured an address by graduate student speaker Tania Silva de Oliveira, who earned her Ph.D. in chemical engineering in December 2022 and is now employed at a Boston-based global pharmaceutical company. With her drive and the support of her family, she completed two bachelor’s degrees in her native Brazil and also completed an undergraduate study-abroad experience at URI.

“I always felt and knew that education was the way toward a better life for me and for my family,” Oliveira said. “As an undergraduate, I went to a chemical engineering school, and like many of you, worked nights to pay my rent and bills and studied during the day.”

Talking about her doctoral studies at URI, she acknowledged the common challenges faced by all grad students.

“We all know that we fought, dedicated, and gave the best of ourselves to be sitting where we are today,” Oliveira said. “But graduate school is also rewarding, otherwise no one would pursue it. I still remember the feeling of having my first scientific paper published. I bet you do as well.”

She also told the audience that many family members were watching at home in Brazil.

“And as you know, my mom and grandma are not understanding a single word of what I am saying. I will ask you to excuse me so I can offer them a few special words: Te amo vó e mãe! Obrigada por tudo,” meaning, I love you grandma and mom. Thank you for everything.

Watch the Commencement 2023 ceremonies and recap videos and photos.