Celebrating ‘The Next Generation of Leaders’ at Commencement

Calling the Class of 2023 “the next generation of thinkers, leaders, and doers,” JWU Providence Campus President Marie Bernardo-Sousa, LP.D. 92 told the graduates at Saturday’s Commencement ceremony, “You did it! You did not let a global pandemic — that reset the course of history, disrupted our economy and reshaped our lives — stop you.”

Turning challenges into opportunities is the Wildcat way. In her rousing speech, Commencement speaker Jodi Leigh Berg ’23 Hon. zeroed in on the unstoppable zeal of JWU students — and how that can be a primer for a happy life. “Intelligence is positively correlated with happiness when used to serve others,” she explained. “From your first day at Johnson & Wales, you have been a member of a university that values pride, courage, character, and community — it’s the Wildcat Way to serve others. This university graduates students who know that they and their smarts are NOT above the world, but rather that they and their smarts are of the world. Because of your JWU education, you are scientifically positioned to be both educated and happy!”

“Make your purpose in life to have a positive impact. Living your worthy purpose will offer you deep satisfaction.”

Berg shared her own journey as a fourth-generation leader of the family company, Vitamix. She spent more than 30 years in various roles at the company before becoming CEO in 2011. (She was once described as “the most liked CEO in Cleveland.”) In 2022, she passed the torch to Steve Laserson, the first Vitamix CEO from outside the family circle. She explained to the JWU crowd, “I didn’t design our high-performance blending equipment. I created a culture that allowed people to be their authentic selves, take risks, find their wings, and soar.”

Berg quickly pointed out that it’s up to each graduate to own their personal journey, including the ups, downs, and in-betweens. She said, “Make your purpose in life to have a positive impact... Your purpose will differ from mine, but living your worthy purpose will offer you deep satisfaction.”

Student speaker Hillary Thilavong embodies Berg’s advice to the fullest. As a first-generation college student and seemingly effortless multi-tasker, she maximized her time at JWU. She volunteered at the RI International Film Festival, and she photographed events. She served on the ADTEAM as a secretary and media team member. And as social media ambassador for the John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences, she increased their account reach by 19% in 6 months.

Thilavong opened her remarks with a shoutout to her family watching all over the world: “Sabaidee, pi nong khon Lao took khon ti dai hen clip ni!” (She is fluent in English, Lao and Thai.) The family was a touchstone in her speech, which outlined her “recipe for success”: motivation, perseverance and achievement.

“All of us have different support systems that bring out the best in us so we can bring out the best in others,” she explained. “That motivation to be our best selves shapes us into who we are: artists, leaders, entrepreneurs, storytellers, first-gen graduates — we conquered multiple papers and projects, thousands of tests. And fast forward a few years later, we recognize we could not have done this alone.”

“Finding success is like making a favorite dish: Experiment, learn, fail, but try again.”

To illustrate perseverance, Thilavong explained that her father adored making fried rice, despite feeling like perfection was always out of reach: “Finding success is like making a favorite dish: Experiment, learn, fail, but try again.”

And achievement? “The last ingredient that pushed us to accomplish what we wanted, the dream job, a fulfilling future. We kept our destinations in mind and used our hearts as maps to navigate; we’ve achieved so much. Our decisions led us to success.”

Thilavong asked her fellow graduates to look toward their bright future: “It’s time to cook up a new dish. What may seem like the last course is only the start of a new one. Continue to fill your plate with stories, memories and dreams. Dreams you wish to achieve that motivate you to be you. Here’s to the Class of 2023!”

After conferring degrees, Providence Campus President Bernardo-Sousa once again addressed the jubilant graduates. “We’ve had so many memorable days together. I hope you will bring your Wildcat spirit everywhere. As a symbol of your transition from student to grad, you may now move your tassels from right to left. Congrats — you are now JWU alumni!”


Includes Summer 2022, Fall 2022 and expected Spring 2023 graduates; includes College of Professional Studies.

Total degrees awarded: 1,478

  • B.A. degrees: 26
  • B.S. degrees: 1,058
  • B.S.B.A. degrees: 117
  • A.S. degrees: 277

Watch the recap video below:


Trio of jubilant graduates.

Family hug at Providence undergraduate Commencement.

Family celebrating with their graduate.

Providence Undergraduate Speaker Jodi Leigh Berg '23 Hon. with Chancellor Mim Runey

Providence Undergraduate Commencement Speaker Hillary Thilavong '23

Waving to the crowd at Commencement.

Tight closeup of a crowded sea of faces at the undergraduate Commencement ceremony.