An open letter to SRU community from a grateful Rock Life parent


Student at graduation

From left, Slippery Rock University President Karen Riley congratulates Alek Richardson, a student in SRU’s Rock Life program, after he received his certificate for completing the program at SRU’s fall commencement ceremony, Dec. 9.

Jan. 19, 2024

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Of the more than 500 students who participated in Slippery Rock University's fall 2023 commencement ceremony, Dec. 9, one graduate stood out based on the reaction of the crowd. Alek Richardson received a standing ovation and burst of cheers that could not be restrained by those in attendance, even before his name could be read from the lectern.

Richardson bounded across the stage as if carried by a tidal wave of excitement from his fellow graduates and their families and the rest of the SRU community that filled SRU's Morrow Field House. A native of Stroudsburg, Richardson received a certificate for completing requirements of SRU's Rock Life program, a four-year program for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Below is a letter of gratitude written by Richardson's mother, Jean, to the SRU community:

On December 9th the Morrow Field House at Slippery Rock University was filled and brimming with anticipation. Winter graduation: parents, friends, spouses and loved ones filled the bleachers and guests spilled over into the Alumni House to revel in the accomplishments of the graduates who would soon march across the stage. Each graduate with a story of just how they had journeyed to this day. On that long-awaited morning, to quote President Karen Riley, "we were there to celebrate."

Too often the world moves so quickly we fail to stop and recognize the momentous events taking place right before our eyes. Graduations invite us to stop, remember and 're-member' the many years that were quilted together enabling our daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, even grandfathers and grandmothers to walk across the stage and take their bow. For everyone -- students, family members, spouses, professors, staff, administrators, and board members -- this day is an accumulation of the miracles both large and small that have made this moment possible.

As a parent of a son who lives with intellectual disabilities and social challenges, I never dreamed I would celebrate such a ceremony with my son Alek. December 9th was nothing short of a miracle that you, the SRU community, helped to create.

The miracle story started nearly 30 years ago, when a social worker in the Ukraine placed a 4.7-pound infant in my hands and said, "if you do not take him, he will die here." In that moment, the trajectory of my life changed.

Shortly after my arrival home from the Ukraine with Alek, he was airlifted to a hospital, given little to no chance for survival. Five surgeries and six weeks later, Alek was taken off life support: his survival, nothing short of miraculous.

As Alek grew older, I found myself in a club I had no intention of joining, that of being a parent of a child living with disabilities. We are a fierce and close-knit club. Every parent in the club has a story about how they arrived. Alek suffered apraxia to his brain which resulted in permanent brain damage somewhere between malnutrition, a pre-mature birth, and his significant medical trauma.

Writer David Mitchell describes members of this unique club as people with skin as tough as elephants hides. We know the pains of rejection, dismissal and dashed hopes. We constantly calibrate our dreams in order not to get ahead of ourselves regarding "what is possible." Often, educators and medical professionals fear us because we have developed a fine third ear and listen carefully to nuanced statements in meetings and appointments. Yes, there are times we wisely stand on the sidelines and there are other times we leap over all boundaries to pick up our sons and daughters when the field becomes too harsh.

Like all journeys, there are valleys, like the day when you are told that the gap between your son's development and others in his class will only widen with each passing year, or the day when your child does not have the announcement for the class field trip anywhere in his backpack.

With valleys come the experiences that parents only dare to dream about, that outshine the darkness and fill our lives with hope. Moments when our children are seen and loved for exactly who they are and how they live in this world. Such moments can never be predicted; they are grace unbound.

That miracle of a moment came for Alek during the winter graduation ceremony this past December. Sitting in the bleachers, I just wanted Alek to walk across the stage without an incident arising from nervousness. Please no hitting yourself, no jumping up and down, just walk I prayed. My eyes fixed on the stage I held my breath as the director announced the candidate for Rock Life Program to stand

Then, beyond my wildest imagination as Alek began his solo walk across the stage, the student body rose to its feet and cheers erupted across the field house. Soon all who had gathered in the bleachers rose including the faculty and staff on the platform. My heart nearly pounded out of my chest witnessing the wonder of my son being seen and honored for unique gifts that he alone brought to the SRU community over these past years.

Alek lives in this world differently than anyone I know. He does not see or experience boundaries or differences. Perhaps that is what the student body recognized as they rose to their feet. Someone unexpected who embodied the SRU motto of being Resilient, Optimistic, Courageous, and Kind ... in short, living like a R.O.C.K.

At Slippery Rock University, Alek honed his skills at becoming a true ROCK, beginning by becoming more resilient. He, like others, struggled having to take classes online during COVID and did his best to participate and take copious notes. When Alek made real mistakes, he leaned into the consequences and grew stronger. When Alek experienced correction for social behaviors, he tried his best to change and always "do better next time."

Alek came to SRU with optimism, an innate gift. Nearly every day, Alek's answer to the question "how are you?" is "awesome." During his years as a faithful sports fan, not one Slippery Rock team ever lost a game or a meet. Truth is that Alek's viewpoint may be more correct than most of us can wrap our heads around.

Alek has lived and breathed courage from the day he came off a ventilator so many years ago. Throughout his weeks in the hospital as an infant, I kept hearing a small voice that said, "Don't give up on me yet." Throughout his life, that small voice has become my mantra with Alek. Alek arrived on the SRU campus with lots of courage and he left with even more. Thank you all for never "giving up on Alek."

And finally, "K" for "kindness." Alek likes everyone and greets everyone with the same generous spirit. Each day Alek lives the best diversity inclusion statement anyone could ever write. There is a genuineness to Alek motivated by love and an innocence that allows him to become friends with anyone who is willing to take the time to say "hello."

To all of you, the SRU community of students, faculty, staff, administrators, president, trustees and Board of Governors, thank you for saying "hello" and welcoming Alek and every Rock Life student into your community. To those of you in the Rock Life program, thank you for your courageous leadership and steadfastness in carving a new path for the University. To the mentors, thank you for welcoming Rock Life students into your lives. A special thank you to the dining staff at Boozel who gave Alek a card upon graduation filled with well wishes. Thank you all for drawing the circle wide and living into the gifts and challenges of creating a diverse community on the SRU campus.

Of the 250 colleges and universities in the state of Pennsylvania, SRU is one of 19 colleges that welcomes students living with intellectual and neuro-typical disabilities into their academic community. Slippery Rock University is a forerunner of those 19 institutions by being one of nine to offer housing into the equation.

People often asked me over these past years "What was Alek learning?" as part of the Rock Life program at SRU. In retrospect, Alek learned some of the most important lessons that anyone could learn; Alek learned to ask for help when he was overwhelmed, to forge his own way of becoming more independent, and form true friendships that will last him his lifetime.

Alek leaves the campus of Slippery Rock University a different person from when he arrived. Like other graduates, he is excited for new opportunities away from his parents, looking forward to moving into an apartment, hopeful about applying for a job and delighted to be forming new relationships while cherishing ones he created at SRU.

You, the entire SRU community, participate in miracles each day by living and believing in your own ROCK likeness. Give yourself a standing ovation. On hard days, dare to shout "GO ROCK!" in your offices and classrooms to remind yourselves just how you are a living waterfall creating ripples of resilience, optimism, courage and kindness into your community and far beyond.

Thank you for all you give each day.

In deep gratitude,

Jean Richardson

For more information about Rock Life at SRU, visit the program's webpage or email

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854  |