PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As the first black child to walk the halls of the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, civil rights activist Ruby Bridges knows well what it means, and what it takes, to be the first.
Speaking on Saturday, at the commencement of Rhode Island’s first public college, in front of an audience made up of many of the first people within their families to graduate, Bridges called on Rhode Island College’s Class of 2019 to continue making history, as there are many more “firsts” waiting on the horizon.
“You have been given an opportunity, and with this opportunity comes choices. You could choose to simply live in this country, or you could choose to serve it and make it a better place,” she told the graduates assembled on the arena floor inside the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. “You now have the power to serve mankind, to inspire other young people in our communities. I want you to remember that to whom much is given, much is required. That’s not just a cliché anymore. As of today, that phrase will take on new meaning in your life.”
“Now that you have accomplished this milestone, others will seek you out for your skillsets, they will need your talents, they will recognize that you have something to offer to our society … We need you to go out and inspire greatness in others, to help young people discover the best versions of themselves,” she said.
Bridges was born in Mississippi in 1954, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision ordering the integration of public schools. In 1960, when she was six years old, Bridges became the first black child to walk the halls of Louisiana’s all-white William Frantz Elementary School. She was greeted on her first day by a mob and had to be escorted by federal marshals, yet she crossed the threshold of the school and entered into the history books by changing the face of education.
Bridges has since dedicated her life to ensuring equal access to education for all. Education, she said, has “always connected us,” as a common thread that “makes us all free, free to dream and to be who and whatever we wish to be.”
“The message here is clear. Rhode Island College Class of 2019: knowledge is power,” she said to applause from the audience. “Knowledge is liberating, education erases boundaries. It helps you discover the person buried deep inside that you didn’t even know existed. Education connects you to the world.”
RIC President Frank Sanchez added to the theme of Saturday’s graduation, representing the first day in a bright future for the college’s graduates.
“Commencement is a day of new beginnings, the opening of new doors and the start of something new. As you leave today with the title of graduate, you’re charting your course to live your best life,” Sanchez said. “Fueled by the experiences and education you have gained at Rhode Island College, both inside the classroom and beyond, I have no doubt that you will do this because this class is over 1,600 students strong.”
“You are artists and athletes, educators and computer scientists, entrepreneurs and nurses and researchers and social workers. You are critical thinkers, diverse in innovation and creativity, and filled with determination,” Sanchez told the assembled graduates. “Collectively, Class of 2019, you represent the power of tomorrow. Tomorrow, you enter a world that greatly needs your expertise and your passion.”
Gov. Gina M. Raimondo expressed pride in the students, saying she’s never met a RIC student or graduate who hasn’t impressed her.
“You have the determination, the intelligence, the grit, and the passion and conviction to have made it here today to walk across this stage and to be successful in life…” Raimondo said. “You can do anything. How do I know that? Because you got here today.”
The governor said she had “two things to ask” of the soon-to-be graduates. The first, she said, was to always be proud of Rhode Island College.
“Always be proud of your school and your alma mater because it is among the best colleges in New England…” Raimondo said. “Be proud, be engaged, come back to campus, support the school and always be proud.”
Her second point? Imploring the graduates to stay in Rhode Island after receiving their diplomas.
“Stick around, because we need you … You have all the talent it takes, if you stick around in Rhode Island, you’ll make it a better place,” the governor said.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed called RIC “an extraordinary institution,” as it’s been “the engine of opportunity for Rhode Island, propelling generations from all walks of life forward.”
“You represent the great strength of Rhode Island – our diversity, our ability to adapt, and our willingness to learn something new,” Reed told the students.
U.S. Congressman James Langevin, a RIC graduate from the Class of 1990, said he was proud to be a university graduate, where he spent some of the most formative years of his life and provided the “amazing foundation as I went out into the world and carved my path.”
“I truly believe Rhode Island College has the hardest-working students in the country. Many of you are working and going to school, many of you are holding multiple jobs, families to take care of…” Langevin said. “I know you’ve overcome so many obstacles and we are so proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
U.S. Congressman David Cicilline said the nation is currently embroiled in “a time of unusual division,” but the RIC graduates are leaving a university that has invited discussion and robust debate, providing graduates with the skill to listen to each other.
“You can set an example for the rest of the country,” Cicilline said. “Always recognize the important responsibility to make our state and our world a better place.”