The Journey Ahead

As I write this letter, we are preparing to welcome the class of 2021 to campus. They are an outstanding group of entering students by any measure. As was the case with the class of 2020, the class of 2021 continues a trajectory of raising URI’s academic profile, with the highest average SAT scores and highest average GPA—3.54—of any entering class. With record applications of 22,630, the 3,250 members of the class of 2021 are also part of our most selective class ever.

We couldn’t be more delighted that these bright students have chosen to matriculate at URI, as discerning and well informed as they are. Most of these students were born just around the turn of the century. They were toddlers on 9/11, and they have no memory of a world before cell phones, the advent of social media, and the ubiquity of Google searches. Their formative years were shaped by technology that today increasingly informs every aspect of our lives and has dramatically changed the way we teach and the way we learn. They were barely middle-schoolers when the first African-American was elected President of the United States.

And so, in addition to their expectations about technology and the availability of endless streams of information, our freshman class enters URI with the expectation that they will find a community that celebrates different cultures, lifestyles, beliefs, abilities, religions, political systems, and philosophies. They enter with the expectation that URI has a strong Office of Community, Equity and Diversity focused on creating an inclusive environment that supports each individual member of that community of differences. From the beautiful Gender and Sexuality Center at the heart of our Kingston campus, to programs like the Diversifying Individuals Via Education (DIVE) conference, URI walks the talk when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

Consider these data points: The class of 2021 is our most diverse in URI history, with 24% identifying as students of color. Of course that is not our only measure of diversity, but it is important to note that in 2010, just seven years ago, 16.1% identified as students of color. Faculty diversity, thanks to faculty hiring initiatives led by CED, has also seen significant gains. In 2010 the full-time tenured faculty included 16% from diverse racial and ethnic groups and in 2017 that percentage has risen to 18.6%. During the academic years 2015-2017, URI hired 34 new full-time tenure-track faculty members and two deans from diverse racial and ethnic groups.

The homepage of our Office of Community, Equity and Diversity website features a quote from Chief Diversity Officer Naomi Thompson that summarizes a critical element of diversity and inclusion: “Fostering a diverse, welcoming and inclusive community requires individual commitment in action, modeling respect for each individual and valuing the human differences that enhance our learning community.”

The story of Mary Mai Donahue exemplifies this sentiment. Mai’s life stands in stark contrast to the lives of most of our entering freshmen. As a non-traditional student, Mai graduated in 2002, when she was in her 50s. Determined to get an education after having been denied the opportunity as a child in Vietnam, Mai didn’t start her studies until her six children started to leave home for college. And she persevered for 12 years to earn first her associate’s and then her bachelor’s degree. When you read about Mai, you will understand how she greatly enhanced our learning community by her very presence, and how she stood as a shining model of the importance of valuing human difference.

I’m proud that URI is a place where we recognize that differences strengthen us rather than divide us. We’ve made progress toward becoming a truly inclusive community—and with the help of our 3,250 newest members, I know we will continue the journey, together.