President Hannigan Made Me Cry (And Frankly, I Loved It)

Chase Portaro (

This past Friday, as Robyn E. Hannigan delivered her presidential inauguration speech to the Ursinus community in the Floy Lewis Bakes Center, I couldn’t help but cry. To me, her speech was powerful, inspiring, and it hit all the marks of a good speech. But I didn’t just cry because I’m an avid speech connoisseur. I cried because above all, Hannigan was unexpectedly heartfelt – and she truly made me feel proud to be a Bear. 

I have to admit, I approached the inauguration like I approach most formal events, already skeptical of its austere nature. Plus, I was already aggravated because while I was attending the inauguration, most of my friends had already returned home to get a head start on their Fall Break. But almost as soon as Hannigan began speaking, she disarmed me of my skepticism and made me momentarily forget I was still in Collegeville. “In case you didn’t figure it out already, I cry a lot,” she said, stifling a laugh as her teary eyes looked out over the crowd. 

Next, Hannigan touched on a topic that’s been weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of her mostly-Southeastern Pennsylvanian audience. “Although this week has been about Ursinus and about my presidency, it was a big weekend in town, so I just wanna say, go Phils, go Eagles.” I was close to tears when she mentioned the Eagles’ success this season (as I’m an angry and jealous Panthers fan – 2-5 record – Boo Hoo), but at this point in her speech, my tear ducts were still bone-dry. 

As she continued into the more serious parts of her speech, she spoke about her family and the important role her mother-in-law played in her life. “Thank you for wrapping your arms around me and showing me the power of family, something I really didn’t have much of growing up,” she said, as she struggled to contain the emotion in her voice and paused to wipe away the tears that streamed down her face. At this point in the speech, my own waterworks started to flow.

As Hannigan’s speech continued, the emotion of it mellowed a bit and my tears dried up, but when she recounted the Squishy story, I went right back to crying again. Squishy was the nickname of an undergraduate member of Hannigan’s research cohort in her early years as an Assistant Professor. To make a long story short, Squishy was an extremely dedicated student who spent extremely long hours in the lab, even sleeping there overnight throughout the week. But one day, Hannigan found out his dedication in the lab was borne out of necessity rather than purely just a love for science. “Lo and behold, Squishy was homeless. I asked the students, ‘Well how is he eating? How is he showering?’ And they said, ‘Well, we’ve been feeding him, and he uses the athletic facilities to take a shower.” 

After doing her own due diligence into Squishy’s academic situation, Hannigan discovered that years earlier, he had been arrested for drugs, and his first job out of jail was her research lab. “With the help of colleagues and an institution that was committed to non-traditional students like him, we discovered he was eligible for several scholarships and grants. After three years, Squishy had published his research in peer-reviewed journals, had finished his bachelors in chemistry with a minor in biology, and was accepted to medical school. He is now a practicing physician with a spouse and a couple of kids, and he hasn’t forgotten the journey that he took. He established a scholarship for formerly incarcerated men to pursue chemistry degrees at the university.”

Hannigan explained how Squishy’s story changed her outlook on students’ success in higher education. “Well-being and health in a student’s success matter, and that’s a legacy he should be very proud of.” Hannigan’s experience with Squishy motivates her to improve Ursinus’s own outlook on student well-being. After her speech, Hannigan signed the Okanagan Charter on behalf of Ursinus, which according to information on the school website “provides institutions with common language and principles for well-being in person, place, and planet.” The Charter will allow Ursinus to collaborate with other colleges in the Okanagan network to improve the well-being of all members of our campus community. 

Hannigan explained that Ursinus is the first liberal arts college to sign the charter, and at this point in her speech, I was overwhelmed with pride at my college – my Ursinus community. I don’t know if I drank the Kool-Aid or not, but I do know that I am extremely excited, possibly even humbled, to have Dr. Robyn E. Hannigan as our 19th President of this Ursinus College. Go Bears!