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RIC receives largest donation in school’s history to boost nursing school

The $3 million donation will honor the legacy of Zvart Onanian, a former licensed practical nurse and the daughter of survivors from the Armenian Genocide.

A Rhode Island College nursing student at the Rhode Island Nursing Education Center.Gene St. Pierre/Rhode Island College

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island College’s School of Nursing received a $3 million donation, the college’s largest individual gift in its 167-year history, from philanthropist Edward Avedisian.

The school will be renamed the Zvart Onanian School of Nursing after Avedisian’s sister, Zvart Avedisian Onanian, a former licensed practical nurse. The name change was approved by the Office of Postsecondary Education at a meeting last fall.

Avedisian served as principal benefactor of the Khoren and Shooshanig Avedisian School, the Nork Marash Medical Center and the Zvart Avedisian Onanian Center for Health Research and Development — all in Armenia. Avedisian and his sister grew up in an immigrant community in Pawtucket.


“We wanted to give families that do not have the means an opportunity to get a good education. Parents are struggling to get by every day, and hoping to give (their children) an education is an added burden. I hope that other people who have the means can do some good themselves,” said Onanian, 86, told the Globe in a phone interview Monday. “That’s what we are supposed to do after all — reaching out and helping others.”

Their parents, Shooshanig and Khoren Avedisian, were survivors of the genocide in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in 1914 and 1915. His sister’s name, Zvart, means “joy” in Armenian, Avedisian said.

“Nursing truly has been and continues to be her calling,” said Avedisian. “Our parents always emphasized education. School and education were the first words I learned in Armenian and in English. They never wanted us to work in a mill like them.”

He added, “And they taught us the value of giving, rather than taking.”

Zvart Avedisian (left) and Mary Lepre (right) when Avedisian was a nursing student. Rhode Island College

He said that their family’s limited financial resources didn’t allow her to become a registered nurse, but she worked out of Pawtucket Memorial Hospital as a LPN.


“She has always been ‘on call’ as the family’s resident nurse, dispensing advice and cures at a moment’s notice. Her interest in nursing endures, and she still keeps up with the latest advances in the field,” said Avedisian.

Onanian will be presented with honorary degree at the school’s nurses pinning ceremony, which will take place virtually on Wednesday. Her daughter and RIC alumna Debbie Onanian will escort her.

The pinning ceremony marks nursing students’ completion of their program and serves as a way of welcoming them into the profession, according to John Taraborelli, a college spokesman. The ceremony has been standard practice in the US since 1916, he said, but the tradition can be traced back to Florence Nightingale, who is considered the founder of “modern nursing” in the 1860s.

A recent photo of Zvart Onanrian. Rhode Island College

Of the $3 million, $2.9 million will fund the Zvart Onanian Endowed Professorship to support the “integration of innovative teaching and research in the area of simulation” and $100,000 will fund the Zvart Onanian Endowed Nursing Scholarship to support at least one nursing major.

“We wanted to give to a college that mirrored my mother and uncle’s experience as children of immigrants. RIC provides an opportunity for low-income, first generation, and immigrant students,” said Zvart Onanian’s daughter Laurie Onanian, who previously worked in development at the University of Rhode Island and Boston University. “And it was a major reason as to why we chose to give to this school.”

Kimberly Dumpson, interim executive director of the RIC Foundation, said that Onanian’s story resonates with many of the college’s students. She said, “Many of our enrollees are first-generation college students who come to Rhode Island College fueled by a dream.”


She added, “That dream empowers them to do the impossible.”

The professorship will create a tenured faculty position that will focus on simulation, education, teaching, research, and evaluation. The school existing simulation program is one of 100 in the country that is accredited by the Society for Simulation in Healthcare. The school will also be the only nursing program in the region to develop and implement an “Innovation Center for Creative Ideas,” according to Taraborelli.

The students “will be able to seamlessly access the technology they need to provide effective care without losing sight of what is most important – the patient,” said Carolyn Masters, the dean of nursing.

The center, which will build out a more focused mission after the professorship is filled, will enable faculty to link with experts from across the country. They’ll promote collaborations in simulation and “learn the newest and most effective means of integrating simulation and innovation into the curricula.”

College president Frank D. Sánchez said in a statement that this “transformational gift” will impact all levels of nursing education, from the baccalaureate programs to the Doctor of Nursing Practice.

“By supporting our simulation program and future nurses, this endowment ultimately benefits all Rhode Islanders,” said Sánchez.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.