Rhode Island College Announces Gov. McKee as Baccalaureate Commencement Speaker

Gov. Dan Mckee stands at a podium outside the Murray Center

Honorary degree recipients include a nonprofit leader, a pioneer in nursing education and an alumnus leading refugee resettlement in Rhode Island.

Rhode Island College today announced the speakers for its baccalaureate and advanced degree commencement ceremonies. Gov. Daniel McKee will deliver the commencement address at the baccalaureate ceremony on Saturday, May 11, beginning at 10 a.m. at the Amica Mutual Pavilion. Meanwhile, Vanessa Volz, executive director of Sojourner House, will be the keynote speaker for the advanced degree ceremony on Thursday, May 9 at 5:30 p.m. at the Murray Center on RIC’s campus.

This year’s commencement exercises represent several important firsts for the college. The first group of approximately 90 Hope Scholarship recipients, who attended their senior years tuition-free thanks to the creation of the scholarship last summer, will receive their diplomas. There will also be approximately 50 students representing the first cohort to graduate from the Bachelor of Professional Studies program, an online degree completion program launched in 2021 for the roughly 100,000 working adults in Rhode Island with some college credits but no degree. The college will also award degrees in Data Science for the first time, a new undergraduate major developed five years ago by the Mathematics Department.

Three individuals will be awarded honorary doctorate degrees from the college. Volz, who is also an adjunct faculty member in RIC’s Gender and Women’s Studies Department, will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Justin Bibee, a graduate from RIC’s Class of 2012, will also receive an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. As assistant director of Refugee Resettlement at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, he oversees Rhode Island’s largest refugee resettlement effort. Finally, Bennie Fleming, the first Black nurse to teach at a school of nursing in Rhode Island, will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Nursing. See below for full bios of all three awardees.

Vanessa Volz | Doctor of Humane Letters

Professional headshot of Sojourner House executive director Vanessa Volz

Volz has been the executive director of Sojourner House since 2011. During her tenure, the agency has updated its mission statement, more than quadrupled its operating budget, expanded its services statewide and developed new community-based initiatives and housing programs, including a program for victims of human trafficking, a permanent supportive housing program, a legal immigration advocacy program and a housing development program. A licensed attorney, Volz previously practiced disability rights law and she has published articles in UC Berkeley’s “Cases on Reproductive Rights and Justice” and Rutgers University’s “Women’s Rights Law Reporter.” She was honored with a RISE Award for Innovative Nonprofit of the Year (2022), the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island Advocacy Award (2020), the YWCA of Rhode Island Women of Achievement Award (2017) and the Rhode Island Foundation Innovation Award (2016). Volz teaches at Rhode Island College in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department, where she developed a number of new courses, including Gender Based Violence and Reproductive Rights and Justice. She is a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, Bard College, Leadership Rhode Island and the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program, as well as two 200-hour yoga teacher trainings. Originally from the Midwest, Volz made stops in New York, the West Coast and the Southeast before establishing Rhode Island as her adopted home.


Dr. Justin Bibee | Doctor of Humane Letters

Professional headshot of RIC alumnus Justin Bibee

Justin Bibee is assistant director of Refugee Resettlement at Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island. In this capacity, he oversees Rhode Island’s largest refugee resettlement effort. Leveraging his profound expertise and rich background in refugee assistance, he leads a dedicated team of resettlement case managers, serving as the primary point of contact for refugees arriving in Rhode Island. Bibee is also a Global Fellow (’24) at the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Studies at Brown University, where he actively engages in collaborative interdisciplinary research addressing the root causes of human rights abuses and seeking viable solutions to the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges. His commitment and achievements in the field of refugee resettlement earned him a Providence Business News 40 Under Forty Award in 2022. He collaborated with R.I. Gov. Dan McKee and Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza to sign proclamations establishing June 20 as World Refugee Day in Providence and across the State of Rhode Island. A native Rhode Islander, Bibee holds an associate degree from the Community College of Rhode Island, a bachelor’s degree in justice studies from Rhode Island College, a master’s degree from the School for International Training in Vermont and a Ph.D. from the Durban University of Technology in South Africa. He also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco from 2014 to 2016 and speaks Darija, a Moroccan dialect of Arabic.


Dr. Bennie Fleming | Doctor of Nursing

Professional headshot of nurse Bennie Fleming

Dr. Bennie Fleming is a recognized leader in education, health and social justice. As a nurse and educator, she has focused her professional training on creating and expanding opportunities for many in her community. She is an important influence in the lives of successful state legislators, physicians, businesses, CEOs and other respected community leaders. Fleming served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II. As an instructor at the Rhode Island Hospital School of Nursing, she became the first Black nurse to teach at a school of nursing in Rhode Island. Throughout her career in nursing and public service, she has served as the science area administrator supervisor for Providence public schools, education director for the Medac Program at Brown University’s School of Medicine and director of that school’s Summer Program. She served as president of the boards of the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society, a member of the board of directors for Planned Parenthood RI, on the national board of directors for Planned Parenthood and as a governor and trustee of the Miriam Hospital. Awards that have been presented to Fleming include the NAACP Education Award, the National Association of Medical Minority Education Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Health Profession in Education, the Distinguished Alumni Award from Meharry Medical College, Planned Parenthood RI’s Ginger Angier Outstanding Board Award, the George T. Downing Award for Education from the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and the Urban League’s Women of Substance Award. In 2003 Mount Pleasant High School dedicated its school-based health center in Fleming’s honor. Fleming holds a bachelor’s degree from Huston-Tillotson University, an R.N. from Meharry Medical College, an M.Ed. from Rhode Island College, an M.A.T. from Brown University and an honorary doctorate from Providence College.