When Racquel Ray ’16SCE was given the opportunity to attend college to work toward her dream of becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church, nothing could stand in her way— not the birth of her fourth child, not even a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.
Ray will graduate summa cum laude on May 15 with a bachelor’s degree in theology from the Providence College School of Continuing Education (SCE). She has been accepted as an aspirant for holy orders for the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. After a year of discernment, she hopes to attend Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn.
“I hope that I’ve changed some perceptions along the way,” Ray said. “I hope I’ve had an influence on people’s perceptions of women in ministry, on other denominations studying in a Catholic program, and about how we perceive adults with disabilities.”
Ray, who is 46, finished her degree in just seven semesters, taking between five and eight classes at a time, some in the classroom and some online. She received credit for past military training and for a youth ministry internship at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Providence. She was a member of the SCE Advisory Committee and was one of the first SCE students inducted into Theta Alpha Kappa, the theology honor society.
Ray lives in Barrington, R.I., with her husband, Von, an electrical service technician, and their children: Christian, 21, a student at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI); Abigail, 20, a sophomore at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass.; Rebecca, 5, in kindergarten; and Elizabeth, born 18 months ago.
An Episcopalian “from the cradle,” Ray felt drawn to the ministry during decades of volunteering in the church, but needed a bachelor’s degree to enter the seminary. She was on active duty with the Air Force for eight years and then spent time raising her children. She kept postponing her entry into college.
“I was always so afraid of starting school,” Ray said.
One day, a friend who is an Episcopal priest asked her, “Are you ready to admit your calling yet?” and gave her $300 to take her first class at CCRI. Ray learned that as a disabled veteran, she was eligible for vocational rehabilitation that would pay for her tuition, books, school supplies, and fees. Because of her interest in ministry, her Veterans Administration counselor suggested she study theology at PC.
PC’s SCE has been designated a “military friendly” school by GI Jobs Magazine for seven consecutive years. SCE awards credit for military training, provides individual academic advising and a VA certifying official, and supplements expenses through the Yellow Ribbon Program. It even has a designated veterans’ student lounge.
Ray submitted her Barrington High School transcript to the SCE and was accepted in January 2013. Walking into the SCE’s veterans’ orientation, she was stunned when SCE Dean Dr. Janet L. Castleman greeted her with the words, “You must be Racquel – I’m Janet.”
“In all my life, I had never walked into a room where anyone knew my name before I could introduce myself,” Ray said.
She credits the support of the SCE faculty and her family with making her degree possible. Two theology instructors, Richard F. Kless ’74, ’78G, & ’82SCE, who also is associate director of community standards at PC, and Gerard B. Schnell ’80, intervened when necessary to assure others that Ray was a student capable of overloading on courses or succeeding in a graduate-level seminar.
“They were mentors and guides who built my confidence as a theologian,” said Ray. “They’ve looked after me like shepherds and kept me reaching for my goals.” (Below, Ray is shown with Cole DeSantis '16SCE, left, and Scott Lima '16SCE, at their induction into Theta Alpha Kappa.)
On the home front, “my husband has been with me on this journey for 23 years,” said Ray. “My whole family always tried to make it possible. The teenagers watched the little people. They took turns coming home early so I could get to class.”
Ray was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in fall 2013, just before she began taking classes. Through diet, exercise, and careful attention to her health, she has kept its symptoms at bay. When she needed treatment, faculty members were supportive and accommodating, she said.
“I have the option of staying home and being a sick person,” Ray said. “But we’re all here for a purpose. Even with a disability, we can make huge contributions.”
By May 2014, Ray had enough credits to be awarded an associate’s degree in ministry through the SCE. Only Elizabeth’s birth in the fall of 2014 interrupted her studies. She took two semesters off before returning to classes in June 2015. That summer, she took four courses and was in class or studying 8-10 hours a day, all while nursing a baby.
Completing her bachelor’s degree quickly was important to Ray. She was awarded 48 months of vocational benefits for her education. She has used 24 and so has 24 left to use to help pay for the seminary.
“I worked hard to earn the highest possible grades because my education is a gift,” said Ray. “I’ve worked to the best of my abilities. I’m really grateful for the opportunity. I want to make the most of it.”
She will continue her volunteer work as a Christian formation minister at Saints Matthew & Mark Episcopal Church in Barrington. After the seminary, she plans to become a chaplain to Rhode Island’s military and veteran populations.
The Ray family will celebrate her graduation with a campfire and weenie roast to thank those who helped make her degree possible.
“I keep thinking at some point someone is going to say, ‘Are you crazy?’” Ray said. “But every door keeps opening.”