PROVIDENCE — Tolman High senior Alyssa Browning didn't know what shocked her more — the fact she had been selected as one of 68 recipients of the 2011 Lt. Governor's Leadership Awards, or that her mom Cindy didn't peruse the letter informing her.
“She has a tough time keeping her hands off my mail, so it took everything she had not to open it,” Browning giggled before the ceremony, held at the Rhode Island Department of Administration's atrium on Capitol Hill Monday afternoon.
“When I first read it, I was excited, but I didn't really know what it was, so I had to look it up online,” she added. “Once I found out, I was very honored and grateful that somebody at my school nominated me. I wish I knew who.”
That was the response most of the 20 Blackstone Valley honorees offered after receiving their individual citations from Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. They didn't have a clue who nominated them – or why.
Still, it didn't matter. Every May since 1993, the Leadership Awards program has recognized those Ocean State seniors who have made positive differences in their schools and communities.
Roberts asked administrators from each participating high school to choose one student who best embodies the qualities of a student leader, and exhibits both a dedication to scholarship and a commitment to community service.
“My mom couldn't be here,” Browning stated sadly. “When I told her what the letter said, she started crying. She's so proud, and so is my dad (Stuart).”
Those winners from Pawtucket included Browning, Mary Gingras of Bishop Keough, Daniela Alves of the Blackstone Academy Charter School, Noelle Cabana of the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing Arts, Danielle Marie Karcher of St. Raphael and Lydia Omoaregba of Shea; from Woonsocket, Meagan Murphy of Mount St. Charles, Adam Brunetti of Woonsocket High and Jintana Souvannavongsa of the city's Area Career & Technical Center; and, from Lincoln, Kayla Benoit of the William M. Davies Jr. Career & Technical High School and Sagar Shah of Lincoln High.
Among the other Valley award victors were Kerstin Hudon of Burrillville High; Josmarie Torres of Central Falls High; Kassandra Neumann of Cumberland High; Alyssa Rizzini of East Providence High; Brandon Normann of the East Providence Career & Technical Center; Erin Langton of North Smithfield High; Asa Spring of Ponaganset High; Michael Karolewski of Smithfield High; and Brianna Branch of St. Mary's Academy-Bay View.
“I've got to admit I was very surprised when I read the letter, and realized I had been selected for this award,” noted Alves, a senior at Blackstone Academy. “I don't know who nominated me, but I'm glad they did. I guess it's because I've had a lot of involvement with the Lieutenant Governor's Office.
“I interviewed (Roberts) for my senior paper, and I asked her to come visit the class I'm teaching (called) Bioethics,” she added. “I'm teaching a unit on health care, and she was kind enough to speak before the class.”
Stated Woonsocket High's Brunetti: “I was a little shocked because the greeting to the letter read, 'Dear Miss Brunetti,' but I didn't care. I thought, 'Wow!' The only reason I can think for me receiving this is that I coached an Autism benefit, and we raised over $4,000 for the Autism Project.
“Then again, I also published a book named 'Dream Wars,' and it's about a war that a kid is dreaming about, (one) between mythical creatures and humans,” he continued. “The main character is sucked into the dream, and becomes one of the leaders of the humans' army.”
Benoit, a Pawtucket resident who attends Davies Tech and is chasing a career in biotechnology, claimed her guidance counselor, Jessica Plumer, nominated her.
“I'm really involved with SkillsUSA competitions at Davies, and Rhode Island as a whole,” said Benoit, whose GPA is about 3.7. “I entered the state competition in the Job Skills-Open category; I picked a skill that's not exactly in line with my shop area, and I had to demonstrate how to do DNA finger printing.”
During her speech, Roberts first thanked attending parents for what they've done in instilling leadership qualities in their children.
“You are students who have ignited change in your schools and communities … and you deserve our highest praise,” she stated.
Taveras, the keynote speaker, explained how he grew up in the Dominican Republic, and had known since Grade 3 he someday wanted to become a lawyer. He also stressed three advice points about what it takes to be an effective leader.
“Build a good team around you,” he told the students. “It makes a huge difference … and don't be afraid to give credit where credit is due. Also, leadership is lonely. Think about that for a second; it's difficult to lead, and it's difficult to make decisions. You can feel very alone, but don't be afraid of that feeling. You have to believe you're doing the right thing.
“And, third, be ready to be criticized; people will criticize you, but don't let it get you down,” he added. “When you make decisions, you'll undoubtedly run into people who have different opinions, and you have to understand that. You people here know what is right and what is wrong. Always do what you think is right, and hold your head up high.”
Following those speeches, master of ceremonies Pamela Martinez, a Johnson & Wales University senior majoring in event planning and intern in Robert's office, read the names and schools of the winners, and Roberts and Taveras greeted each with a citation.
“It was really nerve-wracking because, I mean, she's the lieutenant governor, but she's really friendly, and she makes you feel comfortable really fast,” grinned Benoit, who will attend Wheaton College in Norton come September. “I'm so thrilled, and I think she's a really amazing person for all she's done for the state and also the community.”
Offered Omoaregba, who will graduate from Shea High on June 13: “I came in after school last Monday (May 9), and the letter was laying on the dining room table. At first, I thought I was in trouble because the envelope said, 'From the Office of the Lieutenant Governor!' I just thought, 'What?!' I couldn't believe it. I don't know how I got this award, but – of course – I'm glad.”
When asked what extracurricular activities in which she became involved, she mentioned Student Council President, Co-Captain of the Mock Trial Team, Yearbook staff and varsity tennis player. She then was asked, “Could those be the reason you're deemed a leader?”
“I guess so,” she laughed. “Hey, I'm also the director of the Shea Oscar Night – we're calling it, 'Dress to Impress,' and it's like the Oscars because we're giving out awards for superlatives.”
MSC's Murphy, who hails from North Smithfield, indicated she never before had met Roberts or Mayor Taveras.
“This was great,” said Murphy, who ranks third in her class and played varsity tennis, not to mention acted as Senior Class Treasurer and the Mounties' Foreign Language Club Officer. “I thought they were very nice, but this also was a great opportunity to meet other student leaders from around the state. I found it fascinating.
“This was unexpected, but it feels great,” she added. “I don't know why I got this, but it's definitely a very good feeling.”
Revealed soon-to-be JMW graduate Cabana, a Pawtucketer who plans on double-majoring in music and early childhood development at the University of Vermont come fall: “I feel like I come from a school that's full of leaders, so this is unbelievable. I'm happy I was recognized for taking chances and for being a leader.
“I thought Mayor Taveras said it best: Not everyone is going to agree with you when you make a decision that impacts people, but you have to look past that and do what you think is positive for the community, and yourself. That's what's most important.”