URI honors Professor Vanessa Quainoo, students, faculty, staff for extraordinary efforts to foster diversity and inclusivity

KINGSTON, RI – May 11, 2021 – The University of Rhode Island recently honored Professor Vanessa Wynder Quainoo of Saunderstown for her lifelong commitment to diversity and inclusion in and out of the classroom as part of its annual Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Awards Ceremony. In total, the University recognized six community members and two organizations that have demonstrated commitment to community leadership, academic excellence and service in promoting diversity and multiculturalism at URI.

For more than 30 years, Quainoo, associate professor of communication studies and now chair of the Africana Studies Department, has made a lasting impact on the URI community and served as a role model who has worked to foster appreciation of individual differences and further opportunities for diversity.

In presenting her award, URI President David M. Dooley stated, “I can think of no person more deserving of this award than Dr. Vanessa Quainoo. She has been a leader, a champion, an advocate – and, frankly, a dedicated warrior in the effort to change the University of Rhode Island and to bring recognition to the field of Africana Studies.”

As the director of the Africana Studies program from 2012 to 2017, Quainoo worked to expand Black History Month from a siloed event to a community-wide celebration. Her research and Africana studies outreach has taken her to Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago and she has stressed the global significance of Africana Studies, which ultimately helped to gain the program full departmental status in October 2020. With her husband, Bishop Joseph Quainoo of New Covenant Ministries, Professor Quainoo began the Ghana study abroad program, and later expanded the program to include Cape Verde.

In addition to her work in Africana Studies, Quainoo teaches race and media analysis to undergraduate and graduate students alike in the Harrington School of Communication and Media. Quainoo is a poet, an ordained minister and most recently began working with the USAID Fisheries Program to establish COVID-19 public health initiatives in Ghana.

“She has built an incredible legacy of promoting diversity and inclusive excellence that continues to this day to bring vibrancy to our community, to enrich our community,” said Dooley. “I’m confident she will continue to do so for years to come.”

In accepting her award, Quainoo thanked members of the URI community, faculty, staff, and students as well as her friends and family, near and far, and congratulated the evening’s winners, “It is a village, and it takes a village. We do it together.” She added, “It is a lifetime achievement award, but I hope that I have a little more time here to continue to work, and teach, and strive, and write and to live as one who knows that someday, somehow, there shall be a brighter day.”

The Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Awards are hosted by the Multicultural Student Services Center and are meant to acknowledge excellence and contributions toward building and sustaining an equitable and multicultural community at URI.

In addition to Quainoo, this year’s winners are:

Undergraduate Student Academic Excellence

Patrice J. Pierre
Patrice J. Pierre

In addition to being an excellent student, Patrice J. Pierre of Warwick is a leader who is actively engaged in helping his fellow students strive toward excellence. As a junior, the economics and political science double-major serves as lead tutor for economics and mathematics at the University’s Academic Enhancement Center – one of the few juniors ever to have held such a role. As a classroom assistant in the Economics Department, where he also works as a student assistant, he provides six hours of help to students each week, running study and pre-exam review sessions and facilitating online discussions. He serves as a role model and mentor to many new majors, first generation and Black, Indigenous and students of color in the department. In addition to being engaged in independent study with Professor Ric McIntyre, this summer Pierre will also provide research assistance on a joint project with McIntyre and Professor Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz. His scholastic recognitions include receiving a Presidential Scholarship, the Nancy McKinstry endowed scholarship in Economics, the Herschel I. and Suzanne B. O. Grossman Economics Scholarship and the Robert Carothers Student Leadership Endowment.

Undergraduate Community Excellence

Yeury Galva Liriano
Yeury Galva Liriano

The level of perseverance and positive demeanor that Yeury Galva Liriano of Central Falls, has brought to his studies is matched only by his dedication and commitment to community. As a computer science major, Liriano was instrumental in developing a plan and organizing a student group for Latinx students, now known as the Society for Latinx in Computing (SLiC). In addition to developing the group’s website, helping to recruit students and serving as the group’s president, Liriano has worked with the leaders of other groups on an executive board to coordinate extra-curricular programs for computer science students and to meet with and provide feedback to the Computer Science Diversity Committee on the best way to attract and meet the needs of underrepresented students. Liriano also serves as vice president for URI’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and was awarded “Most Outstanding Community Builder” last year for his work as a resident advisor.

Student Organization

Seeds of Success

The College of the Environment and Life Sciences’ Seeds of Success including its leadership team, students: Keyline Moreno of Pawtucket, Naomi Pajarillo of Providence, Ashley Tai of Braintree, Mass., Wenricka Griffith of Providence and Isabelle Massé of Norwood, Mass. Seeds of Success serves as a home away from home and source of support and encouragement for students from underrepresented communities or those facing difficult circumstances. The group helps to connect students to one another, to academic and emotional support, and to opportunities or events that will help them. Over the course of the past year, the leadership team has been engaged in keeping members active and connected, holding virtual drop-in-hours, events and hosting guest speakers – providing the very support, inclusivity and connectedness needed for all students during a very difficult time.

Graduate Student Excellence

Elaine Shen
Elaine Shen

Elaine Shen of Houston, doctoral candidate, URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences. According to her nominators, Shen is a leader, a contributor and an active voice in diversity, equity and inclusion within CELS. Over the past several years, she has been involved in multiple JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) initiatives. She is a founding member of Voices of Inclusion in Communities of Education and Sciences (VOICES) and a member of the CELS Diversity Committee. In addition, she is a mentor and graduate advisor for CELS’ Seeds of Success and has even begun a graduate student counterpart organization, which has opened the door for graduate students to mentor undergraduates. She has organized discussion groups to engage in conversations over race and equity; how to be an antiracist; LGBTQ equity and inclusion and intersectionality and has used her voice to enact positive, inclusive change within CELS.

Staff/Administrative Excellence

Lisa Macaruso
Lisa Macaruso

Lisa Macaruso, of Ashaway, assistant director, URI Office of Disability Services. As assistant director of Disability Services, Lisa Macaruso works every day to promote diversity and inclusion and to connect with students seeking to advance their education. On campus and off, she shows an immense commitment to community leadership, academic excellence and service. In her community, she is part of the Chariho School Committee where she led formation of an antiracist task force to start a dialogue toward dismantling systemic racism and has worked to rebuild the RYSE school, which serves students with emotional disabilities and alternative learning needs. On campus she works daily to mitigate stigma around race and disability and increase inclusion and diversity among marginalized populations. In addition to being involved in a number of committees and task forces that have been integral in helping to examine intersectionality, last year she co-founded a transition program for students with autism spectrum disorders, S.T.A.R.T. URI, which aims to promote neurodiversity and inclusion and recently entered a doctoral program in educational leadership to help her continue this work. Macaruso has been a passionate advocate with a commitment and desire to break down barriers, dismantle racism and promote diversity and inclusion.

Faculty Excellence

Melissa Villa-Nicholas
Melissa Villa-Nicholas

Melissa Villa-Nicholas, of Wakefield, assistant professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences. Since joining the university, Villa-Nicholas has created an entire focus on diversity and inclusion within her department, which has radiated to the entire URI community. She created a track within her department called “Information Equity, Diverse Communities, and Critical Librarianship” with classes focused on critical disability approaches, immigrant and migrant information contexts and practices and social justice in children’s and young adult literature. She organized a webinar speaker series called “Voices of Equity,” which brought scholars from around the country to speak on a wide range of topics related to diversity and inclusion in library and information science. She is well-published and speaks often on Latinx information access. In addition to serving on diversity committees throughout the University, she also serves on state library association committees considering information equity and access. According to her nominator, “She makes civil discourse better for all of us by embracing the value of all people in all she does.”

College Department/Unit

Shanette Harris, associate professor of psychology and Africana Studies, accepted the Departmental Award on behalf of the Africana Studies Department and its faculty. The Department has long worked to promote social justice, diversity and inclusion at the University of Rhode Island and in the broader community. Its faculty are leaders who work to broaden not only student perspective but also that of the greater community, expanding cross-cultural understanding and our capacity for diversity. In addition to leading study abroad programs to Belize, Africa, Cape Verde and other locations, which have helped contribute to greater understanding of different cultures, faculty members are deeply involved elsewhere within the University in terms of promoting diversity and inclusion, including serving on University and College-level committees. The Department’s role in building diversity and fostering understanding within the URI community continues to be critically important.