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University of Rhode Island senior Elise Felker, center, sings the URI Alma Mater in a recorded performance as part of the college’s virtual commencement celebration for the class of 2020. She is joined by instrumentalists Jonathan Audette, Jake Brunelle, Julia Curran, Mikayla Fernandez, Brandi Lane, Michael Robinson, Nick Schleyer, Collin Tyrrell and Molly Vallee.

KINGSTON, R.I. – The strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” played beneath sweeping aerial views of the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus as part of the video that kicked off URI’s unique 2020 undergraduate commencement ceremony on Sunday.

President David M. Dooley then delivered a recorded welcome address to the approximately 3,600 undergraduates receiving degrees at a time when URI, like other colleges, is closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

URI shut its campuses in March after a week-long spring break, and students concluded the semester using distance learning.

“I very much wish we could all be together on campus,” Dooley said. “But we should not let our disappointment with the current circumstances overshadow your joy and your pride in completing all the requirements for your University of Rhode Island degree.”

Some graduates did, in fact, show up with caps and gowns on the URI quad Sunday to observe the ceremony on their laptops, while most had the option to watch from home or wherever they happened to be.

On Saturday, URI presented degrees to its 730 graduate students.

“You have achieved remarkable things and made a lasting impact under very difficult conditions,” Dooley said. “The Class of 2020 will be renowned for its determination, resiliency and just plain grit.”

URI’s president conferred 4,648 degrees to 4,316 students as part of the ceremony. The graduates include 130 veterans. The oldest graduate is 66 years of age, the youngest is 19.

Dooley noted the “historic growth” at URI during the tenure of the graduates, including new academic buildings, residence and dining halls and “even a new Rhody Ram statue.”

He also praised the expertise and talent of the graduating class.

“The education you received at URI now serves as your foundation and springboard to advance your life, support your goals and contribute to our global community,” he said.

Gov. Gina Raimondo also presented a recorded address congratulating the graduates.

“It’s going to be tough not to be on campus with friends to celebrate all your accomplishments in a more traditional commencement ceremony,” she said. “College is hard enough when things are normal. And this year, each of you has faced adversity unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Classrooms became Zoom calls and homes turned into primary work spaces, the governor said.  

“You had to find so many ways to be creative and keep yourselves going,” she said. “But you did. You rose to the challenge, you crossed the finish line and made it here today.”

She encouraged the graduates to stay connected.

“You’ll always have this in common,” she said. “You can continue to support one another as you all move forward. You have a common Rhody family, and a common experience, and we’ll always be there for you.”

The ceremony also included video congratulations by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and members of URI’s Class of 1970, as well as a performance of the alma mater by graduate Elise Felker, of North Kingstown.

Felker, who earned a degree in music education, was initially interested in musical theater, but took a different career path when she realized the impact of music education.

Last summer, she interned at Casterbridge Music Development Academy in South Africa, a nonprofit organization that helps underprivileged teens become entrepreneurs in the music industry. She earned money for the trip to Africa through singing competitions and several URI scholarships, including a Metcalf Fellowship.

Felker plans to combine her passion for music and working for nonprofit organizations. Her long-term goal is to open her own music camp that helps refugee children.

She attributed her success at URI to the support of faculty at the Department of Music and tireless commitment of other music enthusiasts like herself.

“They have supported me through thick and thin,” Felker said. “They make sure that no one graduates as a cookie-cutter version of what the faculty thinks a URI music student should look like. We all have different values and interests and the faculty seems to cherish that and tries to give us opportunities that match well with what we want.”

Jeremy Chiang of South Kingstown has spent most of his four years in URI Theatre behind the scenes.

Chiang was set to play Prince Herbert in the season-ending musical, “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

“I viewed the role as kind of my goodbye to acting,” Chiang, a theater major with concentrations in design and directing, said. “It was one of the roles I really wanted. It’s crazy fun. I liked the comedy and music of the role and it also represents the LGBTQIA+ community, which I am a member of and a huge advocate for.”

The actors were in rehearsals with most of the musical numbers under their belts and working on choreography when word came that the show was postponed. It’s been rescheduled for this fall with an invitation to the cast who want to return.

Chiang said he’s upset that his senior year was disrupted by the crisis. But he’s hopeful a ceremony will be held in the fall.

“URI really has shaped the artist I am today,” he said. “I was able to compete in the Kennedy Center festival, and have met some great artists and mentors through my time here. I feel ready to go into the field.”

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