Viola Davis to URI graduates: ‘I see the sacred in you’

University of Rhode Island confers more than 4,700 degrees during three days of moving celebrations honoring students’ resilience and achievements

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 20, 2024 – In front of a capacity crowd Saturday at the Ryan Center that was at first boisterous and then moved to silence, Viola Davis, one of only 19 people to have won Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards, had a profound message for the University of Rhode Island Commencement Class of 2024.

“Allow me to beckon you to a call to adventure. What is the call? The call is to love,” said the renowned performer who spent much of her early life in Rhode Island and graduated from Central Falls High School.

Davis’ inspiring words came during the College of Arts and Sciences Commencement, one of eight graduation ceremonies celebrating the URI Class of 2024. During the three-day commencement weekend, May 17 through 19, the University conferred 4,762 degrees—3,980 undergraduate and 782 graduate degrees. 

“I stand here and in each of you I see the sacred, an ember that when agitated, woken up, becomes a glorious, wild flame. That flame is your story. It’s your passion. It’s your lifeforce. Allow me to wake up your flame,” Davis said in opening her stirring address.

She acknowledged that people have ambitions, the desire to achieve and make a mark in the world. “None of it means anything if the blinding need to one’s purpose is not active, tangible, accessible, purposeful love,” she said to a loud ovation.

She challenged the graduates to make others’ lives better, “like holding someone’s hand when they are dying, confronting someone who has hurt you, using your degree, your skillset, to put something in the world to make someone’s life better.” She continued, “Looking at a parent or grandparent in the eye who no longer has the memory of you, working your way through that grief and loving and showing up for them.”

Melany Feliz Garcia, the student speaker for the College of Nursing, is all smiles as she applauds her fellow graduates. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

Davis also offered advice on the power of transformation and healing. “The healed one becomes the healer. Once you slay those inner dragons, it will make you better leaders. What I am ultimately saying is the world is in desperate need of an elixir and healers. Healed leaders will only become better healers and that looks like love to me.

“You can either leave something for people, or you can leave something in people. When you leave it in you are planting embers, eternal flames, and that is a boss move.” 

Graduates celebrate during the College of Arts and Commencement. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

Davis’ remarks followed the awarding of an honorary Doctor of Letters. Charles M. Royce and Deborah Goodrich Royce, noted for their considerable literary and investment success and important preservation work across Rhode Island, were awarded honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees during the ceremony.

Davis’ message of hope and healing, in many ways, gave voice to the reflections shared by the eight student-speakers who addressed their peers during the ceremonies. The students-now-graduates praised their peers for excelling in their studies despite starting their college careers during the disruption of a global pandemic.

Two graduates of the College of Business are beaming after receiving their diplomas Friday. URI photo by Michael Salerno.

“Whether it’s a worldwide pandemic, term papers, or senioritis, nothing has been able to stop the class of 2024,” said Jacob Iacobucci, of West 

Greenwich and the student speaker for the College of Arts and Sciences. “We may bend, we may complain, but we never break. Today, we stand tall, as champions, the URI graduating class of 2024.”

Victoria Fulfer of Narragansett said class members’ plans likely look very different than when they started.

Jacob Iacobucci gives the student address during The College of Arts and Sciences Commencement. URI Photo by Nora Lewis.

“Many of us completed our studies in the middle of a pandemic,” said Fulfer, the student speaker for the Graduate School of Oceanography. “We worked and studied through insurrections and impeachment trials and heated presidential elections. We graduate into a completely new world full of challenges at every turn. But amid the strife and battles, we also saw stories of hope and innovation.”

East Lyme’s Sarah Mayer, the College of Engineering’s student speaker, listed the multiple challenges of starting URI during a pandemic, but said, “Despite these challenges, the class of 2024 persevered, with the determination to make the most out of our university experience.”

She said she was forced to make a decision, “to stay in my dorm room, isolated, or step out of my room and seek opportunities for involvement and personal growth. Had I not done so, I would not have gone to California and Texas to experience the world’s largest engineering conference for female engineers. I would not have mentored seven first-year engineering students. I would not have become a writing consultant in the undergraduate writing center, proving that a STEM major can enjoy writing.”

Melany Feliz Garcia of Providence addressed her fellow graduates in the College of Nursing. 

“As we embark on this next chapter of our journey, let us do so with courage, with determination and with an unwavering commitment to excellence. Above all, let us never lose sight of the incredible privilege it is to be a nurse, to have the opportunity to touch lives, heal wounds and make a difference in the world.”

In his closing remarks, URI President Marc Parlange said, “Never forget the profound importance of hope and possibility. We often use hope as a platitude, but I encourage you to cultivate it and adopt it as a lens for your life.

“Hope and the belief in possibility have given you the resilience to pursue your goals and enable us to confront uncertainty with confidence,” Parlange said. “It is a guiding light during our darkest times and it binds us together, allowing us to collectively envision a better world and build thriving communities. Hope is not just the expectation of better things, but the guidance and inspiration toward achieving them.”