Commencement 2013: URI senior finds joy in helping those less fortunate

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Providence resident hopes to work with homeless people in Boston

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 24, 2013 – Growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Providence, Dianna Bonilla saw firsthand how poverty can destroy families.

But instead of fleeing that life, the 22-year-old senior at the University of Rhode Island has decided to embrace it by helping those less fortunate. After graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies, she hopes to work in a homeless shelter in Boston.

“It’s something I feel passionate about,” says Bonilla. “I think everyone needs a boost of confidence and support.”

Community service has been an important part of Bonilla’s education at URI. During her sophomore year, she volunteered at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, playing with children who had cancer. She also volunteered at Rhode Island Hospital, greeting families in the emergency room.

Last year, she worked as a resident counselor at St. Mary’s Home for Children in North Providence, helping boys who had been sexually abused and were living at the residential facility. And this semester, she’s volunteering at a homeless shelter in Washington D.C., as part of an internship with the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars.

“Dianna has the rare skill of personal reflection,” says Jaime Dice, assistant professor of human development and family studies at URI. “It’s a skill we work on in our courses and she is particularly good at it. She treats all of her experiences as part of a learning process.”

Bonilla is the third of three children born to Maria and Roberto Bonilla, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1988 to seek a better life. Roberto worked in the morning as the manager of a laundromat. Maria waited tables at night at a restaurant. The family lived in an apartment in South Providence, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

“My parents were always there for us,” says Bonilla. “No matter what, we always had dinner at the table at night. We’d talk about what we did that day. It was our way of coming together.”

Bonilla excelled in school, thanks to her parents, neither of whom went to college. They encouraged Bonilla and her two older sisters to work hard and bring home A’s. After graduating from Classical High School, one of the most rigorous high schools in the state, Bonilla settled in Kingston.

At first, she pursued a degree in chemical engineering and then switched to clinical lab sciences. After some soul searching, she decided science was not for her. “I finally had a reality check,” she says. “I didn’t really have a passion for it.”

She took a personality test at URI’s career services office and discovered that she wanted to help people whose lives had taken a bad turn. The human development and family studies program in the College of Human Science and Services was a perfect fit.

The program offers learning opportunities that immerse students in many different educational and community settings. Through hands-on experience, students study how people develop from birth through old age, with emphasis on the role of family and community.

Areas of concentration are child settings and family finance, as well as family and community settings, which is Bonilla’s focus. During her time at URI, she studied the connection between obesity and low-income families, researched how mental illness affects families, and spent time at a child-care center observing children. She learned about personal financial counseling and looked at illnesses common to elderly people. Working with children was a favorite experience.

“I really liked being with children,” Bonilla says. “Every child had his or her way of doing things. Student A and Student B definitely see things differently. It’s fascinating.”

She’s grateful for the opportunities provided by URI. As a student in the Talent Development program, she received a scholarship every year and participated in a slew of academic activities. She also met weekly with her academic advisor to make sure she was on the right track.

One of Bonilla’s highlights at URI is an internship at the North American Association for Environmental Education in the nation’s capital. In addition to volunteering at the homeless shelter, she’s exploring whether environmental programs inspire young students to take steps to protect the planet.

“It’s a great experience,” says Bonilla, who will return to Kingston May 11, just in time for graduation. “I’ve gotten a bit of everything – writing, editing, research, participating in conference calls. It’s very helpful in developing my communication skills.”

Her short-term goal is to work next year for the national service group AmeriCorps at a homeless shelter in Boston. Her long-term goal is to get a master’s degree in public health or social work.

“I know there are lots of people out there who need help and I want to help them,” says Bonilla. “That’s exactly what I want to do – for the rest of my life.”

Her parents and sisters, Ana Bonilla, 32, and Jasmina Bonilla, 30, also URI graduates, plan to attend her graduation, cheering from the audience.

Ana earned her bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies in 2002 and her master’s degree, also from URI, in college student personnel in 2004. Jasmina got her bachelor’s degree in English in 2006. Ana is associate director of financial aid at Columbia University in New York, and Jasmina is a student recruitment and admissions coordinator at the MET high school in Providence.

“Everyone is very excited for me to graduate,” says Bonilla. “My parents always told us how hard it was to make ends meet. They wanted us to work hard and get an education so we didn’t have to go through what they did. They wanted a better life for us.”

Bonilla is on her way.

Pictured above:

Dianna Bonilla, a senior at URI who has devoted her life to helping those less fortunate.

Photo courtesy of Dianna Bonilla