RIC announces 2011 commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients

Thomas Cobb, left, will receive a Presidential Medal. Sandra Powell, second from left, Craig Stenning and Patricia Martinez will be awarded honorary doctorates.

Thomas Cobb, left, will receive a Presidential Medal. Sandra Powell, second from left, Craig Stenning and Patricia Martinez will be awarded honorary doctorates.
RIC professor and celebrated author, Thomas Cobb, who penned the novel “Crazy Heart,” the film adaptation of which earned two Academy Awards in 2010, will be this year’s undergraduate commencement speaker and will receive the coveted Presidential Medal, bestowed upon individuals of special distinction within the college community.

In addition, Rhode Island College has selected three of the state’s prominent leaders in the fields of human services, advocacy, and health care to receive honorary degrees at this year’s two commencement ceremonies in May.

Advanced degree commencement will be held on Thursday, May 19, at 5:30 p.m. in the Murray Center.

Sandra Powell, director of the Rhode Island Department of Human Services, will receive an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree and deliver the graduate commencement address. Powell, who for many years has been at the forefront of public policy and administration, was chosen by Gov. Lincoln Chafee in January to lead the Department of Human Services, after serving for more than two decades in workforce development, most recently as the director of the state’s Department of Labor and Training.

Patricia Martinez, executive director for family support and student development at Central Falls High School, will be awarded a Doctor of Humanities degree at the same ceremony. Martinez, who holds a bachelor’s of social work from RIC, previously headed the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families and has been a long-time advocate for at-risk children and newly arrived immigrants.

Undergraduate commencement will take place on Saturday, May 21, at 9:30 a.m. on the college’s esplanade.

Along with honoring Cobb, RIC will award Craig Stenning, director of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, with an honorary Doctor of Health Sciences degree. Stenning has had a long career in advocacy for assuring quality services and supports for Rhode Islanders with developmental disabilities, mental health and substance abuse issues, and chronic medical and psychiatric conditions.

Cobb, who has taught English at the college for 23 years, originally wrote “Crazy Heart” as his doctoral dissertation in 1985, and first published it in 1987. The movie starred Jeff Bridges, who won an Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of the lead character Bad Blake. The song “The Weary Kind,” from the movie also won the Academy Award for best song.

Rhode Island College, the oldest public institution of higher learning in the state, confers about 1,400 graduate and undergraduate degrees annually.

Honorary degree recipients are chosen on the basis of their exceptional leadership qualities, contributions to civic life or in recognition of high achievement. The nomination, evaluation, and selection process, which takes place over a five-month period, receives input and review from a broad representation of the college community.