By Salve Regina University
The celebrated Iranian author, Dr. Azar Nafisi, once forced from her job as a teacher for refusing to cover her hair, encouraged graduates to embrace the power of their imagination when she presented the commencement address on Sunday morning at Salve Regina University.
In all, 804 degrees were conferred to members of the Class of 2023 – the University’s largest-ever graduating class – by Salve Regina President Kelli Armstrong, including 589 bachelor’s degrees, 207 master’s degrees and eight doctoral degrees. A separate ceremony was held on Thursday for graduate degree recipients.
“[Imagination] brings us out of ourselves and connects us with others,” said Nafisi, whose acclaimed 2003 memoir, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 100 weeks and has been translated into 32 languages. “It is a way of investigating, of perceiving the world, and changing it.”
Nafisi stressed the importance of a liberal arts education, even for those studying science. “Einstein was a musician, he played the violin,” Nafisi said. “He felt imagination was even more important because imagination encircles the world.”
Nafisi, who emigrated to the United States in 1997, told her audience what Iran revealed to her about the importance of liberal arts and humanities. “Life is transient. Life is fickle. Today you might have a home and tomorrow you might not. It is so easy to lose everything you call home. That is why it is so important to have that portable home of imagination because no one can take that away from you.”
In offering his congratulations, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) said he hopes graduates will carry the lessons and values of Salve Regina forward and work for a world that is harmonious, just and merciful. “I am confident that you will make your own mark, and serve a purpose higher than yourself,” Reed said. “Today more than ever, our world needs your combination of knowledge, talent and, most of all, mercy.”
Newport Mayor Xay Khamsyvoravong said he was privileged for the unique perspective he had in getting to know members of the graduating class. “I know you understand the value of our community because I’ve seen you volunteering at our public schools and with our community non-profits,” he said. “I’ve seen you sing to seniors who are living alone during holiday breaks. I’ve seen you wake up early to feed meals to the poor. And when winter got bitterly cold this past year, and the city opened an emergency warming center, there’s many of you that showed up to volunteer, to give those people a warm welcome.”
Khamsyvoravong praised the graduating class for embracing the role of serving in the footsteps of the Sisters of Mercy. “You have stood to protect the needy, you have fought injustice when you’ve seen it, and I’ve seen you each try to make the world a better place,” he said. “You represent the culmination of 75 years of the Mercy tradition, and you’ve given me great hope that our country’s future is in great hands because I know you’ve made this community better.”
In addition to Nafisi, the University also awarded honorary degrees to Dr. M. Therese Antone, R.S.M., Salve Regina chancellor who served as the university’s sixth president from 1994-2009, and to Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, United States Marine Corps (retired).
The University also honored the memory of Drew Ceppetelli in posthumously awarding a diploma to her family. Ceppetelli was tragically killed in an automobile accident over the Thanksgiving break.
Mairead Nee, one of three valedictorians in the Class of 2023, remembered Ceppetelli as one of the first people she met at Salve during freshman year. “I remember her warmth and bright smile being a comfort amongst the changes that come with beginning college. As we gather today to celebrate our time at Salve coming to a close, I challenge each of you to carry Drew’s legacy into whatever comes next for you. Be selfless, be optimistic, be kind, and make sure your people always know you love them in the same way she did. We miss you Drew, and we thank you for the lasting inspiration you left for all of us.”
In her valedictory address, Nee told classmates that they will forever be remembered as resilient. “We are the first class in history to have every year of our college experience impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Nee said. “But in the words of novelist Paulo Coelho, ‘a straight road does not make a skillful driver.’ While we faced challenges our younger selves never could have predicted when we moved into our cozy freshman dorms, this experience made us well equipped for the novel situations we will face after graduation.”
Armstrong, who began her tenure as the University’s eighth president in 2019 together with the Class of 2023 as they started their academic journey as first-year Salve students, said she shares with them a special and unbreakable bond.
“You are my graduating class,” an emotional Armstrong said. “I have had the honor of celebrating your growth over these years as if you were my own children, and I’ve watched you with amazement, not only witnessing your incredible achievements academically, athletically, artistically, but to how much you’ve given back to your community and to one another. You are an incredible group of human beings.”
Armstrong praised the graduating class for the strength and grace they showed when confronted with the frightening uncertainty of a global pandemic.
“You carried us through those days,” she said. “You carried me through. You have weathered so much that when I think of all the challenges you have faced – including the heartbreaking loss of a beloved classmate in Drew – I am humbled by your strength and you goodness.
“It is not in times of ease that we really get to know people and what they’re made of,” Armstrong said. “It is in times of stress and hardship that we reveal our true selves. You astounded us, you inspired us. And as I think about the future of this world, you give us all such hope because you are entering into it.”