Commencement Speaker, Honorary Degree Recipients Announced

Headshot of former RI KIDS COUNT executive director Elizabeth Burke Bryant

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, former executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, will give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree. The late philanthropist Edward Avedisian will also receive a posthumous degree.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, former executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, has been selected as the keynote speaker for Rhode Island College's 169th commencement exercises at the Amica Mutual Pavilion on Saturday, May 13. She will also receive an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree. The late Edward Avedisian, a musician, educator and philanthropist who provided the largest gift in Rhode Island College history, naming the Zvart Onanian School of Nursing in honor of his sister, will also receive an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.

Elizabeth Burke Bryant
Doctor of Humane Letters

Elizabeth Burke Bryant is a child advocate with over 30 years of experience in advancing equitable policies and programs to improve the well-being of children, youth and families. She served as executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, a children’s policy and advocacy organization, for 28 years from its establishment in 1994 to 2022. 

Under her leadership, Rhode Island KIDS COUNT became the state’s premier child advocacy organization with a national reputation for its work to improve the health, education, early childhood development, economic well-being and safety of Rhode Island’s children. The annual Rhode Island KIDS COUNT Factbook informs data-driven advocacy across the state, with a core focus on closing unacceptable disparities by race, ethnicity and income. Among the policy victories that Rhode Island KIDS COUNT contributed to during her tenure were the establishment of the RI pre-K program, full-day kindergarten, the expansion of children’s health insurance coverage, the extension of DCYF services for foster youth up to age 21 and the reversal of a law that required 17-year-olds to be tried as adults and sent to adult prison. 

Elizabeth is an adjunct lecturer at Brown University’s Master of Public Affairs program, where she teaches public policy advocacy and strategic communications. She is a graduate of Classical High School, the University of Vermont and the George Washington University Law School. For several years she served as co-chair of the board of the Partnership for America’s Children, a national network of state and local child advocacy organizations working to improve policies affecting children. She also served as co-chair of the RI Early Learning Council. She is a recipient of numerous awards, including the national Florette Angel Child Advocate of the Year Award, the University of Vermont Alumni Achievement Award, the Girl Scouts of Southeastern New England Leading Women of Distinction Award, the YWCA of Rhode Island Women of Achievement Award, and the Rhode Island Foundation’s Community Leadership Award. She was named USA Today’s 2023 Woman of the Year for Rhode Island. 

Edward Avedisian
Doctor of Humane Letters
The late musician and philanthropist Edward Avedisian poses with his clarinet

The late Edward Avedisian dedicated his life to music, education and honoring his family’s Armenian heritage. His success as both a musician and an educator, as well as his savvy as an investor, provided him with the resources to become a prodigious philanthropist and make a lasting impact on education, both in the United States and Armenia. 

Edward was the third child of Armenian genocide survivors, Koren and Shooshanig Avedisian, born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He attended public schools and eventually went on to Boston University, where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s in music in 1959 and 1961. 

From there, his career as a musician flourished. He earned two prestigious Fromm Fellowships at Tanglewood under the direction of legendary composer Aaron Copland and received an American National Theater Academy Award for his performances in Europe in 1962. As a professional clarinetist, he performed for 35 years with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra and with the Boston Ballet Orchestra for 43 years. He also held posts with the Atlanta and North Carolina Symphonies, Boston Opera Co., Boston Lyric Opera and Harvard Chamber Orchestra. He shared the stage with celebrities including Aerosmith, Whitney Houston, Tony Bennett, Luciano Pavarotti and even Big Bird. 

Edward taught clarinet at Boston University and Endicott College, where he met Pamela Wood, who later became his wife of more than 44 years.

His philanthropic work largely focused on education, music and medicine. In 1999, he established the Koren and Shooshanig Avedisian School in Armenia, serving 75 students in three grades; it now serves approximately 1,000 students from K-12. Edward also named the Paramaz Avedisian Building at the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy for his late brother; the Aram V. Chobanian and Edward Avedisian School of Medicine at Boston University, to honor his lifelong friend and former president of the university; and, of course, the Zvart Onanian School of Nursing at Rhode Island College, in honor of his sister who survives him.

Edward was the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and two previous honorary doctorates from the University of Rhode Island and Boston University. Former President of Armenia Serge Sargsyan twice awarded him with the Movses Khorenasi Medal for Contributions to Education, Culture, Literature and the Arts.