RI Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay delivered the commencement speech at Rhode Island College Saturday, May 16th. He was granted an honorary doctorate of journalism.
Good Morning. Most of you are from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, so you get what I mean: That by virtue of your degrees today, you are all officially "wicket smaht."
To the faculty, distinguished guests, doting grandparents and proud parents, especially you parents of graduates who won’t be moving home to the couch, and all your bored siblings, heartfelt congratulations to the 2015 class of Rhode Island College. Whatever your GPA or job prospects, you’ll probably be working more come September than Tom Brady.
If you had been in the class of 2002 you would have been lucky enough to watch Viola Davis get her honorary degree. Today, you’re stuck with me. You’re probably wondering, just who is this fellow and how long does he plan to talk? Does he know that my family has lunch reservations at Twin Oaks?
A couple of years back, a commencement speaker in Boston, David McCullough Jr., son of the noted author, gave a speech that went viral. His theme to students was that you are not special. He decried the coddling of students in education nowadays.
Well, I’m here to tell you that you are special. You were educated at a special place, Rhode Island College, our state’s oldest public college. You studied at a sylvan campus that blossoms in its spring lilac vestments. Your campus overlooks a historic Donald Ross-designed golf course, Triggs Memorial.
Yet your school is accessible and affordable. Even the storied golf course is public.
RIC has bucked many of the trends skewered by critics of higher education. You won’t find luxury dorms, gourmet restaurants and boutique courses at RIC; those classes in such relevant topics as the Mating Habits of Manitoba Elks, or the lost Jewish Tribes of North Dakota.
Athletics is kept in perspective; RIC doesn’t have zillion-dollar coaches or the cheating boosters who have sullied so many university sports programs. Your stadiums aren’t named for bailed-out banks or coffee and donut chains.
That’s probably why RIC was recently ranked sixth in the northeast by the Washington Monthly as a "best bang for your buck" among 400 four-year degree-granting institutions. You school is the lone Rhode Island school to rank among the top 100 in the region on this scale.
Whatever you studied, RIC has prepared you for a better life. A college degree’s lifetime income premium was 50 percent in 1980. It’s 95 percent today.
Yet there is something even more important that RIC has accomplished than building an educated workforce. Rhode Island College is embedded as deeply into Rhode Island’s development as Narragansett Bay.
It is RIC and its sister public institutions that have been the wellsprings of upward mobility for hard-working students from working-class backgrounds. Since your college’s earliest days as a 19th century teachers’ college, RIC has forged the modern Rhode Island by being a fulcrum of assimilation for generations of immigrants.
RIC’s story is the American story and, particularly, the Rhode Island story. Listen to the surnames of the first class of students in 1854: Adams, Buckley, Brown, Clark, Cleveland, Lippitt, Winship, Wescott, Gardiner.
After the Civil War, things change. By 1880, the graduates are named Kelly, McEntee, McCloskey, McGuigan and Quinn. In the 1920s, the ethnic waltz takes another movement, as graduates named Goldman, Waldman, Rottenberg, Cabral, Faiola, Langevin, Laflamme and Lombardi earn their degrees.
In the 1950s, the student surnames evolve again, as Almeida and Mederios join the skein of Delucas, Bisbanos, Milkuskis and Sarkesians graduating.
Today’s graduates include Ortiz, Lopez, Maia, Mao, Patel, Ram, a Sanchez and Lopes. Sixty-five percent of you are first-generation college graduates. This is a source of pride for all Rhode Islanders.
As Victor Profughi, emeritus professor of political science, says, "RIC is a mirror that has long reflected the changing demographics of Rhode Island."
Since its founding, RIC has been a force for equality and tolerance. In the myth of nostalgia and family legend, the descendants of European and Canadian families all came here legally, learned English quickly and stepped off the boat into the middle class. In reality, immigrants, especially Roman Catholics, faced hostility from native Yankees. The state’s largest newspaper, the Providence Journal, published 'No Irish Need Apply' ads until the late 1890s and the newspaper routinely referred to Italian-Americans until nearly the middle of the 20th century in terms too nasty to repeat on this august occasion. Anti-Catholicism was so rampant that Ku Klux Klan crosses were burned in Smithfield.
RIC helped change that. It didn’t happen overnight. But over the years it became more difficult to demonize and stereotype people you studied with in class, danced with at parties and invited to each other’s homes. Some even walked down the aisle into the arms of a classmate from a different heritage.
The strength of our state lies in our diversity. While the European immigrant groups who once eyed each other warily in Rhode Island now pretty much get along, our state remains a long distance from equality of opportunity for newer arrivals, particularly those whose native language is Spanish.
A few years back, while researching a story on our new immigrants, I had the grand good fortune to speak with an elderly Catholic priest. The priest was working on merging parishes in a Blackstone Valley community to bring newly arrived immigrants to worship in the same church as the older generations of immigrants.
I asked the priest what challenges he and his church faced in this melding. He replied simply, and I thought, eloquently. "The biggest thing is getting the older parishioners to understand that these new people are just like their grandparents."
When Viola Davis last spoke at RIC, in 2013, she said people always ask her why she comes back to Rhode Island.
Davis said, that, for all her Hollywood success, she has never forgotten her roots. "I carry you everywhere – around the world – with me. I always say, I’m from Rhode Island. My alma mater is Rhode Island College and Central Falls….Rhode Island College is where I found myself. Thank you for claiming me as your own."
As you leave RIC today for the wider world, carry that sentiment with you. Support always what will in a few minutes become your alma mater with your voices, your votes, your money and your time. Remind you neighbors that there is no better investment for taxpayers than public higher education.
Now comes the fun part, where I get to spew a few platitudes at the graduates.
Here’s some parting advice:
Don’t live with your head in a cloud. Or in the sand.
Honk if You Love Jesus. Text if you want to meet Him.
Marry up. I did. My wife, Dr. Staci Fischer, can’t believe that I got to be a doctor by giving a speech. She had to endure four years of med school.
Remember at your age, there are no mistakes, only lessons.
Do something nice every day for someone who doesn’t expect it. Shovel your neighbors snowy driveway, volunteer at a shelter, buy coffee for the person behind you at Dunkin Donuts.
As Maya Angelou says, "Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud."
Achieve career success, but aim for something higher – generosity, kindness and character.
Take your job, but not yourself, seriously.
And have a good time today. That backyard barbeque or table for eight awaits. Onward. And God Bless Rhode Island College and God Bless your class of 2015.
The video of Scott's speech is available online; his speech starts about 2:50:50 in.