On Saturday, May 13th, 2023, College Unbound (CU) held its largest graduation ceremony ever at Waterfire Arts Center, with 85 graduates receiving their bachelor’s degrees in Organizational Leadership and Change from the college, Rhode Island’s 13th accredited institution of higher education. Close to 1,000 guests, family members, and friends were in attendance to watch the ceremony on-site, with overflow tuning in on Zoom.
CU supports a population of adult learners that have been underserved by traditional higher education. CU helps adults re-enter and stay in college, as they earn their Bachelor of Arts degree through CU’s unique approach and comprehensive wrap-around support services. CU’s academic content and instruction build on a student’s prior studies, life experiences, and interests to create a truly student-driven curriculum.
Welcoming the graduates was Wendell Pritchett, College Unbound’s Board Chair and past Interim President of the University of Pennsylvania. “I had the distinct honor of being the first to congratulate our graduates. I speak on behalf of my colleagues when I say we are so proud of their accomplishments and incredibly excited to see what the next phase of their journey holds — bachelor’s degree in hand,” Pritchett said.
"The College Unbound commencement was the culmination of a journey these students have been on for many years. I was moved by their courage and determination not to fail but to be successful. I’m so proud of them and of College Unbound itself," said Robert Carothers, Executive Vice President of College Unbound.
At the ceremony, six students were awarded College Unbound’s Fighting for Justice award, which recognizes students advocating for social justice in their communities.
"It was a joy to present this year's Fighting for Justice Award, named for the Honorable William C. Clifton, who was Rhode Island's first African American prosecutor and District Court Judge. Like Judge Clifton, these graduates have demonstrated a deep commitment to creating the change they want to see in the world and fighting for justice whenever and wherever it is needed," said Sylvia Spears, Vice President for Administration and Innovation.
Award recipients included College Unbound’s first Chicago and Philadelphia graduates. One of the two Rhode Island Fighting for Justice awardees, multilingual community advocate Naiommy Baret, spoke first on her drive to elevate the voices of young people and effect short- and long-term change. “Broken promises never discouraged me. My motivation, my son. My obsessiveness, passions and fire for justice. My driver, I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice. I have known of knowledge as infinite power so I seek real truth that inspires others. I’ve fed myself with this infinite power of knowledge to advocate for my child and my fellow brothers and sisters. ”
Following Baret, the second award went to a currently incarcerated graduate of College Unbound. An excerpt from their speech, read at the ceremony by their brother says, "the commitment took discipline, sacrifice, and relentlessly – plus – clear understanding that I would have to suffer more losses than celebrated wins. Those, and life lessons, prepared me to be the champion for adults that I have impacted, and prepared me to impact the lives of young people which deserve a chance and an opportunity to learn to defend themselves in a complex and unjust world."
This graduate looks to continue their student project focused on building positive youth engagement and employment training in Rhode Island.
At the ceremony, CU President and co-founder Dennis Littky, also the co-founder of The Met High School and Big Picture Learning, passed the proverbial torch to co-founder and current Provost Adam Bush. Littky will be helping to spread CU’s reach and influence nationally once he formally steps down as President on July 1, 2023 to be succeeded by Bush.
Bush gave his commencement address to a jazz tune and spoke about the tensions between improvisation and institution building. Speaking to the graduates, Bush reminded them, “the applause each of you get as you cross the stage and the applause you will get as a group as you turn your tassel in a few minutes — is not just for this moment of graduation. It is for the long history of work and of learning and of collective care you have shown one another. Even in solo performance there is collective improvisation.”
"As I prepare to spread CU around the country, I am so proud of our students and the success alumni have had after graduation, with 41% earning a masters’ degree and others obtaining salary increases of $10-$20,000. Being a graduate at College Unbound means College Unbound will be with our students forever," said President Dennis Littky