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Thirteen years after she crossed the Dunkin’ Donuts Center stage to receive an MBA degree from Providence College, Heather G. Abbott ’03G & ’16Hon. returned as the featured speaker at Providence College’s Ninety-Eighth Commencement Exercises on Sunday, May 15, 2016, to share how she overcame the loss of her leg in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
“Life is a carnival of contrasts,” said Abbott. “There are so many wonderful moments, like college graduations. Yet there are also disappointments and setbacks, the moments that force us to persevere. Sometimes we can see them coming — a failed test, a divorce in our family, a missed job opportunity. And sometimes we can’t — an unexpected health diagnosis, a car accident — or, in my case, a bomb.”
A human resources manager for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, Abbott was standing near the marathon finish line on April 15, 2013, when shrapnel from the second bomb mangled her left foot. After a week in the hospital, she agreed to the amputation of her leg below the knee to increase her chances of recovery. She later founded The Heather Abbott Foundation to raise money to help other amputees.
One of five honorary degree recipients, she received a doctor of public service degree. In an address interrupted twice by applause, and which received a standing ovation at its conclusion, she shared her “three keys to happiness and fulfillment,” describing them as “accept it and move on,” “get off the island” by accepting help from others, and “share the spirit.”
“Three years ago, in one moment, I went from being a carefree race spectator to a terrorism victim facing amputation,” said Abbott. “I was never getting my leg back. I needed to accept that … and focus on getting my life back.”
A native of Lincoln, R.I., who now lives in Newport, Abbott said she was fortunate that she was injured “in a high-profile public event. That public exposure in national media enabled me to attract resources and help that were so important to my recovery. But what about people who suffer quietly and alone? People who are injured in a way in which the whole world isn’t aware and able to help? Don’t we owe them our assistance?”
The cost of prosthetics runs from $15,000 to more than $100,000, she said. She is the “proud owner” of six legs, including a waterproof leg that allowed her to return to her favorite sport, stand-up paddle boarding. She said she was thrilled to learn she also could have a leg that allowed her to wear high-heels — but at a cost of $70,000.
“It may seem trivial to be concerned about things like high-heels,” said Abbott. “But appearance is important for business life, and it’s important for self-esteem. It’s literally who you are. There are already enough challenges in recovering from amputation. Why must people accept a new identity?”
Abbott concluded with an account of her meeting earlier in the morning with Francisco Oller ’16 (San Juan, Puerto Rico). Oller used a wheelchair to get around campus because of a nervous system disorder that affects his balance and ability to walk. He graduated magna cum laude with a degree in management and will study for an MBA at The University of Tampa.
“When asked how he manages the many hills and slopes at PC in his wheelchair, he replied, ‘Friends always help me go uphill,’” said Abbott. “Sometimes you’ll be the one who needs the push, and other times you’ll have the opportunity to give the push.”
“Take it from me — you can write your own history,” Abbott concluded. “So write it boldly.”
The College presented 1,180 diplomas to the Class of 2016, including 905 bachelor’s degrees to full-time undergraduates; 237 degrees to graduate students who studied education, history, mathematics, theological studies, and business administration; 33 to students in the School of Continuing Education, and five to honorary degree recipients.
In addition to Abbott, they were Robert W. Fiondella, Esq. ’64, retired chair of The Phoenix Companies, Inc., and founding principal of JEROB Enterprises, Inc., whose generosity helped launch The Angel Fund at PC; Timothy P. Flanigan, M.D., a professor of medicine at Brown University and deacon in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, who studied theology at PC and worked in Liberia during the Ebola epidemic; Rose Ella Weaver, an entertainer for more than 40 years in theatre, television, film, and music, and George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, and chair of the Newport Festivals Foundation, Inc.
In his greetings to graduates, College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80 spoke about the importance of conversation, citing the book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, 2015), by MIT professor Sherry Turkle.
Father Shanley said Turkle’s thesis is that face-to-face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do — where we are fully present, develop the capacity for empathy, and learn self-reflection.
“If you think about your time at PC, what has changed you the most is the face-to-face conversations that you’ve had,” Father Shanley said. “A series of conversations over four years fashioned you as the people you are now. Some conversations were in the classroom, some in office hours or laboratories, some in residence halls with friends, some in bars when you were 21, some when you were at home, some even with your parents, and some I hope were with God, in the chapel or in the silence of your own heart.”
Texting is a wonderful way to communicate, but “the digital self we craft in text messages and tweets is not the complicated stuff that we really are,” said Father Shanley.
“Remember all the conversations that have changed your life, and reclaim conversation,” said Father Shanley. “Have those conversations face-to-face with your friends, your spouses, your children, your colleagues at work, and your God. I hope you keep conversing for the rest of your lives. It is the most human and humanizing thing we do. For it is in conversation that we find ourselves, connect with one another, and come to know God.”
The procession of graduates was led by the class valedictorians, who shared the honor of highest in academic rank: Meghan C. Lescault ’16 (Walpole, Mass.), Rebecca R. Marisseau ’16 (Tuftonboro, N.H.), and Cayla A. Stifler ’16 (Glen Rock, Pa.). All have been accepted into doctoral programs. Lescault will study classics and Marisseau history at Brown University, while Stifler will study quantum physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Charles T. Alagero, Esq. ’78, president of the National Alumni Association, welcomed the Class of 2016 to the alumni family. Alagero’s three siblings graduated from PC and his daughter, Julia Alagero ’17, is a current student. He asked all graduates who have an alumnus among their family members to stand and be acknowledged.
“Over 55,000 graduates have passed this way before you, and today their collective talents contribute greatly to every career field imaginable in every state across the nation and worldwide,” said Alagero.
Kelley F. Garland ’16 (Wantagh, N.Y.), senior class president and a global studies major, will travel to the Czech Republic in August to teach English through a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship.
In her welcome, she remembered that in her Development of Western Civilization class in her freshman year, “we had the most riveting debates about fate versus free will. Was it in God’s divine plan for each of us to live the life we will, or are we each in control of our own destiny?”
Now, after four years, “we all have friendships that will stand the test of time — people who will be in your wedding party, people who will text any time you see Friar Dom on ESPN, people that you met attending Providence College … whether because of fate or free will,” said Garland.
Three government officials offered congratulations: U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin, D-R.I., U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-R.I., and Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza. The invocation was given by Most Rev. Robert C. Evans, D.D., auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Providence, and benediction and the blessing of the graduates were performed by College Chaplain Rev. Peter Martyr J. Yungwirth, O.P.
Dylan C. Levinson ’16 (Fairfield, Conn.) led the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Katrina Z. Pavao ’16 (North Providence, R.I.) sang the Alma Mater. Both were performed by the Providence College Symphonic Winds, conducted by Dr. Jennifer Bill ’00.
Very Rev. Kenneth Letoile, O.P. ’70, chairman of the Providence College Corporation, assisted in conferring the honorary degrees.
Twenty-five percent of the full-time undergraduates of the Class of 2016 graduated with honors, including 49 who graduated summa cum laude, 96 magna cum laude, and 83 cum laude. In addition, 229 students were named to honor societies. The most popular majors in the class were finance, marketing, biology, psychology, and accountancy.
At the Academic Awards Ceremony in the Peterson Recreation Center on Saturday morning, Lescault presented the class oration on behalf of three top scholars. She said that over four years, the College has made its graduates joyful because of the gift of Veritas, or Truth, PC’s motto.
“This is only the beginning of our path to truth and joy, as the Catholic and Dominican tradition in which we are so deeply rooted here becomes our guide and our strength in this great pursuit,” said Lescault.
Dr. Dana L. Dillon, assistant professor of theology, presented greetings from the faculty. She told graduates and their families that if she could give one last lecture, it would be called “The Unity of Love and Truth.”
“I hope you have become seekers of learning and truth,” she said. “I hope you’ve also become seekers of love.” She spoke about the childhood book The Little Prince and concluded her remarks by referencing the secret of the fox in the book, saying, “I hope we’ve given you the tools to see the world with your heart.”
The Commencement Mass and the Service of Investiture was celebrated on Saturday afternoon in Peterson Recreation Center with Father Shanley as the principal celebrant and homilist.
Fifteen student leaders in academics, campus organizations, and athletics were invested at the Mass, including Garland, Lescault, Marisseau, and Stifler. Also receiving the honor were Nicholas D. Calabraro ’16 (South Easton, Mass.), William D. Cavedon ’16 (Berlin, Conn.), Danielle R. Deraney ’16 (Shrewsbury, Mass.), Kristofer M. Dunn ’16 (New London, Conn.), Patrick H. Ford, IV ’16 (Exeter, N.H.), Jacqueline M. Luciano ’16 (Staten Island, N.Y.), Kathleen B. McGinty ’16 (Andover, Mass.), Eric M. Rivera ’16 (Chula Vista, Calif.), Kathryn M. Santilli ’16 (Cranston, R.I.), Samantha K. Wagner ’16 (North Kingstown, R.I.), and Nicholas A. Wolfe ’16 (Rockville, Md.).
The Army ROTC Patriot Battalion Commissioning Ceremony was held Friday afternoon, with 16 students, including 11 from PC, commissioned as second lieutenants: Adam D. Comeaux ’16 (Columbia, Md.), Graham R. Cox ’16 (Mont Vernon, N.H), James F. Doyal ’16 (Wakefield, R.I.), Andrew D. Fitman ’16 (Worcester, Mass.), Anna E. Hayes ’16 (Rye, N.H.), John D. Jovan III ’16 (Southbridge, Mass.), Douglas A. Kingsley ’16 (Sherborn, Mass.), Elizabeth E. Leong ’16 (Cohasset, Mass.), Albert Scialo ’16 (Warwick, R.I.), Tyler T. Stein ’16 (Tewksbury, Mass.), and Thomas F. Walsh ’16 (Westfield, N.J.).
The guest speaker was Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Spoehr, director of the Army Office of Business Transformation since 2013. Comeaux presented the class remarks.
TOP: Commencement speaker Heather Abbott ’03G (Photo by Ashley McCabe)
FIRST INSET: A trio of graduates celebrates following the Commencement Exercises (Photo by David Silverman)
SECOND INSET: A graduate gestures in satisfaction. (Photo by Ashley McCabe)
THIRD INSET: Basketball All-American Kris Dunn ’16 proudly shows off his diploma. (Photo by David Silverman)
FOURTH INSET: Students wave before the start of the Commencement Exercises. (Photo by David Silverman)
FIFTH INSET: U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Douglas Kingsley ’16 is joined by family members at the ROTC Commissioning Ceremony. (Photo by Ashley McCabe)