New URI pharmacy Scholarship to benefit underrepresented students

Robert and Birdie Lawrence Endowed Scholarship gives preference to African American students with financial need

KINGSTON, R.I. — February 10, 2021 — While improvements in diversity have been made in recent years, African American people are still severely underrepresented in the pharmacy profession across the country, accounting for less than 5 percent of all pharmacists, according to PharmacyTimes. A new scholarship established by one of the University of Rhode Island’s first doctor of pharmacy graduates aims to help lessen the disparity.

The Robert and Birdie Lawrence Endowed Scholarship will support students in the College of Pharmacy, with a preference for qualified African American students with a demonstrated financial need, or students from other historically underrepresented populations. The $50,000 gift was invested within the URI endowment, where it will grow over time and continually help students with financial need pursue a world-class education in the URI College of Pharmacy.

URI alumnus Kenneth Lawrence, ’88, Pharm.D. ’90, established the scholarship in the names of his parents, “whose lifelong commitment to the importance of education and perseverance in the face of adversity shaped my character and informed my career,” he said. “Education was always a big priority for my parents, and going to URI was a huge opportunity for me. I want to help others have that same opportunity.”

Lawrence understands the value of getting that needed opportunity. As a young student, he originally was not accepted directly into the pharmacy program. He opted to major in biology, with the goal of one day earning a spot in the URI pharmacy program. His hard work caught the eye of former pharmacy Professor George Osborne, who helped mentor him until he achieved his goal and was accepted into the program, becoming one of the first two Pharm.D. graduates from the University.

Lawrence spent 20 years as a clinical pharmacist before moving into pharmaceutical development, currently serving as senior director of Seres Therapeutics in Watertown, Mass. He credits the opportunity he got at URI and the hard work he was exposed to in the College of Pharmacy for his career success, and hopes to pay that opportunity forward, especially for a student with a similar background to his.

“Pharmacy is not a job; it’s a career, and it is something you have to work extremely hard on, especially if you’re African American,” Lawrence said. “The disparity in this country still exists. There is an implicit bias toward students of color; there are always different expectations. I hope this gives some students an increased chance of having a successful career.”

The disparities extend beyond pharmacy into all aspects of health care, Lawrence said. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted African Americans nationwide, has made those disparities obvious, inspiring Lawrence to establish the scholarship. It is expected to begin benefitting students for the fall 2021 semester.

In addition to providing opportunity for students, Lawrence hopes the scholarship plays at least a small part in increasing diversity in health care in general.

“More needs to be done to increase opportunity for students in disadvantaged positions,” Lawrence said. “This is just the beginning. We need to make health care, pharmacy, nursing more diverse. If you have a more diverse healthcare workforce, you can provide better care.”