University of Vermont

Academic Ceremonies - Commencement

Sister Janice E Ryan Honorary Degree Recipient

Honorary Degree Recipient

Doctor of Laws

Janice Ryan began life in a leading role – the first of many – as the oldest of six children in her Fairfield, Vermont, farming family. Expectations were high, faith was important, life was busy, and, perhaps most important, there were no gender limitations. The girls cleaned and cooked, but they also milked the cows and ran the tractor. The young girl who left home to join the Sisters of Mercy in 1954 was well prepared for a life of rigor, challenges, and devotion.

Sister Ryan says she was drawn to the Mercy Order because of its focus on education and work with immigrants. She didn’t have a plan beyond following “the spirit” that led her there. She didn’t need one, it seems. Beginning with her bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in 1965 and her final vows in the Mercy community the next year, she approached every job with a love and a mastery that spread her influence and brought her even more jobs.

She began teaching at Cathedral grammar school and junior high school in Burlington. Her experiences with an after-school assignment, working with developmentally disabled children, led her to a master’s degree in special education, curriculum development in the field, and eventually to organizing support for successful passage of mainstreaming legislation in 1972, the first such law in the country.

In 1979, Sister Ryan stepped in as interim president of Trinity College, and was soon offered the job, a position she held for 17 years. During her tenure, she established Weekend College and oversaw the school’s successful capital campaign. When she stepped down so that Trinity could have a change, she spent seven years in Washington, D.C., as project director for the Catholic Campaign to Ban Land Mines and as an advocate of abolishing the death penalty. Her most surprising job, however, was still ahead.

In 2003, Sister Janice Ryan become the first woman ever to fill the position of deputy commissioner for Vermont’s Department of Corrections, a job she held until 2006. Policy work always interested her, the struggle being, she says, “to insure it benefits humankind and not the vested interest of the few.”

Faith plays a major role in her life. “I truly believe we have purpose and that it is related to some greater force,” she says. “It is almost impossible to imagine my life without a belief in a higher power, to put it in secular terms. There is so much in the universe that calls out for it.” Not yet ready to retire, Sister Ryan says her next contribution “will be wherever the spirit leads me.”


Last modified May 01 2008 06:52 PM

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