Widener University Awards Diplomas to Nearly 900 Graduates

Widener University commencement speaker Rula Al-Saffar urged nearly 900 students graduating from Widener on Saturday to “knock on the doors of life until your hands bleed and you get what you want. I want dignity and freedom.”
Commencement 2013
Al-Saffar, ranked 11th by Arabian Business Magazine on its 2012 list of the 500 most influential Arabs, received an honorary doctorate of public service degree during the ceremony. Widener President James T. Harris III, who has transformed Widener into one of the nation's leading civic engagement institutions since his arrival at the university in 2002, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

A 2000 graduate of the master's in nursing program, Al-Saffar formerly served as president of the Bahrain Nursing Society and assistant professor at the college of Health Science in Bahrain. A breast cancer survivor, she also founded the National Association for Cancer Awareness in Bahrain.

In February 2011, when peaceful protests in Bahrain turned violent, Al-Saffar volunteered to treat those injured, spending days at the hospital with little or no sleep. For her efforts, Al-Saffar and many other doctors and nurses were arrested, interrogated and beaten. She spent four months in prison and was accused of incitement to overthrow the Bahraini government, among other charges. She was convicted in a military trial and sentenced to serve 15 years in prison.

Human Rights First, an independent advocacy organization, enlisted Widener, among others, in a campaign to apply international pressure on Bahrain to have Al-Saffar's case heard in a civil court. The efforts were successful, and her conviction was overturned, but a number of her medical colleagues remain in prison.

Despite the constant threat of imprisonment and interrogation, Al-Saffar continues to fight for the release of her colleagues and advocate internationally for the United Nations to adopt the concept of medical neutrality so what has happened in Bahrain does not happen somewhere else in the future.

"They say I have leadership skills," Al-Saffar said. "Maybe I was born with the genes of leadership. I used to boss my twin brother, and now I boss my husband. Just kidding, it is actually not genetics that makes you a leader; it is the experiences and pain that you go through in your life. You must see the beauty of it and connect the dots afterwards."

In nearly 11 years as president of Widener, Harris has strengthened the connection between the university and the city of Chester through initiatives such as the Widener Partnership Charter School, the Chester Higher Education Council, University Crossings, and the Widener Small Business Development Center.

For those efforts, and many others, Widener was ranked 19th by Newsweek/The Daily Beast on their list of the most service-oriented school in the country, ranked by Washington Monthly on their list of universities that do the most for the country, and has consistently been recognized "with distinction" in the President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. In 2013, the university was selected as a President's Award finalist by the Honor Roll.

In addition to civic engagement, Widener is also emerging as one of the nation's top universities for leadership development. President Harris established the Oskin Leadership Institute with a $5 million gift from the family of university trustee David Oskin, launched the High School Leadership Awards in conjunction with NBC 10 in Philadelphia, instituted the Voices of Leadership program, and introduced the Philadelphia Speakers Series in Philadelphia.

During his tenure, the university has enjoyed the largest undergraduate enrollment in the university's history, increased the percentage of minority students 69 percent, more than doubled the institutional financial aid available to students, and oversaw the introduction of new doctorate programs in social work and human sexuality and expanded undergraduate offerings in cutting-edge programs such as biomedical engineering and informatics.

On behalf of the graduating class, Senior Class Gift Committee Chair Tom Hunter, an accounting and economics major from Garnet Valley, Pa., presented President Harris with the largest senior class gift in university history – a check for more than $6,792. The senior class designated the gift for the university's Widener Fund, 100 percent of which funds student financial aid.

"This class has achieved great things with their giving, and not just for the Senior Class Gift," Hunter said. "We give even when there isn't anything to receive, and along the way, we have learned that the best way to accomplish the journey is by helping those around us succeed."

Harris introduced four valedictorians who all achieved a 4.0 grade point average. Michelle Callaghan, an English major from Williamstown, N.J.; Edwin Dauber, a computer science major from Chesapeake City, Md.; Emma Ricciardi, an English and creative writing major from North Wales, Pa.; and Erin Sylvester, and English major from Mantua, N.J. all shared the honor. Charlotte Kirkby, a French and psychology major from Williamstown, N.J., was honored as salutatorian.

The student address, however, was delivered by President's Award recipient Nicole Nardone, a psychology and pre-physical therapy major from Garwood, N.J. The President's Award is presented to the senior who has contributed the most to campus life through scholarship and participation in extracurricular activities. Nardone was a standout on the field hockey team and was a member of the Presidential Service Corps/Bonner Leaders Program.

"This program provided me with an exceptional experience and significantly influenced the person and leader I have become," Nardone said. "The individuals who comprise this program are some of the most inspirational, intelligent and motivated people I have ever encountered and I value every experience I had with each of them."

Widener University is a private, metropolitan university that connects curricula to social issues through civic engagement. Dynamic teaching, active scholarship, personal attention, leadership development and experiential learning are key components of the Widener experience. A comprehensive doctorate-granting university, Widener comprises eight schools and colleges that offer liberal arts and sciences, professional and pre-professional curricula leading to associate's, baccalaureate, master's and doctoral degrees. The university's campuses in Chester, Exton, and Harrisburg, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., serve some 6,500 students. Visit the university website, www.widener.edu.


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Photo Caption:  Widener University graduates hold up the peace symbol in support of commencement speaker Rula Al-Saffar, a 2000 graduate of the Widener School of Nursing and former president of the Bahrain Nursing Society who was imprisoned during Bahrain's Arab Spring. In Bahrain, it has come to symbolize smood -- the persistence of the people.