SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Rhody the Ram, or rather the student who served for two years as the University of Rhode Island’s beloved mascot, had some parting words of wisdom for his fellow graduates at Sunday’s 133rd commencement, held at URI’s Kingston campus.
College, student speaker Stephen D’Aloisio said, is not necessarily the best period of one’s life.
“The University of Rhode Island has indeed given us something special,” D’Aloisio, a communications studies major, told the graduates, their families and friends, and URI faculty during a windy afternoon ceremony on the quad.
Unforgettable experiences, life-changing opportunities and lasting relationships, as well as the ability to explore and pursue interests, were all part of life at URI, he said.
Indeed, when he was suited up as Rhody for two years, D’Aloisio got the chance to attend the NCAA tournament with the men’s basketball team and two Atlantic 10 Conference men’s basketball championships. As Rhody, he appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” at this year’s A-10 tourney.
“But adventure does not end after college, our relationships do not end after college, our relationships do not end after college, our aspirations, our ability to learn, mature and educate do not end after college,” he said.
Believing that the best years of their lives are behind them is limiting, he added.
“It may be normal to believe that college is the best years of your life; but normal is boring. We are commencing, we are beginning, and we are just getting started.”
The graduating class of 4,177 students is large and diverse, URI President Dr. David Dooley said.
“Our youngest graduate is 18 years old and our oldest is 70,” Dooley said. “And if you think you’re seeing students who look alike, know that there are eight sets of twins in the Class of 2019.”
Officially, the university awarded 747 graduate degrees and 3,713 undergraduate degrees over the course of the weekend. Among them were 56 veterans, Dooley added.
Also present were members of URI’s Class of 1969, celebrating the 50th anniversary of its commencement. The class will give a gift of $1 million to the university, Dooley said.
Honorary doctorates were presented to Edward Avedisian, a renowned musician and supporter of Armenian causes and history; Margaret Ellen “Peg” Brandon, the first alumna of the Sea Education Association to become its president; John M. Grandin, founding director of the International Engineering Program and professor emeritus of German; and Lynn Cheryl Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., was the commencement speaker. Kennedy shared the story of his struggles with bipolar disorder, alcohol and prescription drugs, and repeated his call for efforts at the national level to provide more funding for mental illness, addiction and other diseases of the brain.
“Now at 51 years of age, I recently celebrated with my family a profound and humbling victory – my eighth year of continued sobriety,” Kennedy, son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said.
Growing up in the famous political family, Kennedy’s problems were mostly referred to in whispers, if at all, he said.
“Too much of the advice that I got was judgmental, rather than medically sound and supportive,” he said.
His father didn’t understand that the younger Kennedy’s struggles were a part of health care, too.
“When it came to my asthma, or my brother’s bone cancer, he was all-supportive, all-loving and all-in,” he said. But his father had a ‘blind spot,’ like many of his generation, when it came to mental illness and substance abuse.
“He tended to lay that one on me, rather than viewing what I was experiencing through the lens of mental illness,” he said.
Kennedy called mental illness and addiction “equal opportunity destroyers.”
“Mental illness and addiction are in no way impressed that I come from a famous family,” he said.
Spending on mental health care is just a fraction of what’s expended to combat cancer, HIV/AIDS and other major public health crises.
“Just this last year, we lost 72,000 Americans to fatal drug overdoses. We lost more than 47,000 Americans to suicide,” he said. “If our brain diseases aren’t properly treated, we lose ourselves, and America loses what we would contribute to society.”
He urged the graduates to dedicate time and energy “to a cause greater than yourself,” and “leaving here today in pursuit of a purpose-filled life, so that these challenges no longer seem insurmountable. Do it for yourself, and do it for all those who are coming up behind you.”