BRISTOL, R.I.— Two local Indigenous leaders will co-deliver the commencement address to both this year’s and last year’s graduates at Roger Williams University for a scaled-down in-person celebration this May.
Sagamore William Guy, chief of the Pokanoket Nation, and Lorén Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Indigenous Museum, will together deliver the keynote address to the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 prior to being presented with honorary degrees.
According to university archives, it will be the first time local Indigenous leaders have delivered RWU’s commencement address.
Guy, whose Pokanoket name is Po Wauipi Neimpaug, or “Winds of Thunder,” is the principal chief of the Pokanoket Nation, which was the confederation of native peoples who first greeted the Pilgrims when they arrived in New England in 1620. He is the ninth-generation great-grandson of Po Metacom, who was the Pokanoket leader known to the English as King Philip or Philip of Pokanoke.
In addition to being the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, Spears is an award-winning Narragansett-based author and artist. She’s written curriculum, poetry, and narratives for publications such as From Slaves to Soldiers: The 1st Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolution.
“William Guy and Lorén Spears are doing the vital work of helping the public acknowledge and reconcile the untold stories of our past, while preserving and celebrating the Indigenous heritage of Rhode Island,” said RWU President Ioannis Miaoulis in a statement. “It is important to honor our local Indigenous leaders who reflect our institutional mission of ‘strengthening society’ through their commitment and life’s work to making Rhode Island a better place.”
The university will also present an honorary degree to Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the director of the state health department, for keeping “the public calm and well-informed” throughout the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alexander-Scott, who previously worked in infectious diseases for children and adults, “provided critical COVID testing support to institutions across Rhode Island and guided university reopening efforts, meeting regularly with all higher education leaders and partners to navigate health and safety for campus and surrounding communities during a constantly shifting situation,” read the university announcement.
The weekend of commencement celebrations will begin on May 21 when RWU Law graduates hear from the Honorable Edward C. Clifton, retired Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court and veteran of the U.S. Army, who will receive an honorary degree. The ceremony will be an in-person grad walk and virtual ceremony for 153 students of this year’s graduates, as well as a celebration for last year’s.
Civil rights and employment law attorney Lynette Labinger, who has recently limited her practice to cases sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union and was recognized in 2019 by the RWU Law Review as the “Gender Equity Champion,” will also receive an honorary degree from the law school.
Ceremonies on May 22 and May 23 will feature a livestream grad walk, where students will be honored individually. Each graduate will be allowed to bring no more than two guests to campus; processions will occur in small groups, and will be spaced apart.
After graduates walk, they will have to immediately depart campus. Each ceremony will be livestreamed on the university’s website.
Over the three days, the RWU will award degrees to 1,200 students in the class of 2021, which include 168 masters, one Master of Studies in law, and 152 law candidates. In addition, 1,100 graduates of the Class of 2020 will also be celebrated.