Thirteen URI graduates receive Black Scholar Awards for outstanding achievement

KINGSTON, R.I., June 24, 2021—Eleven University of Rhode Island graduating seniors and two graduate students were honored for their academic and community achievements at the University’s 24th annual Black Scholar Awards. Established in 1998 by Donald Cunnigen, URI professor of sociology and anthropology, the awards recognize African-American students for their outstanding achievements in leadership, community involvement, academic achievement, and athletic achievement.

The Black Scholar Awards were the first and only awards program in the University’s history founded with the primary objective to acknowledge the diverse achievements and contributions of students of African descent. Since its founding, the program has recognized hundreds of students who have made outstanding contributions to the University, state, and nation. 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, students receiving awards were honored during a virtual ceremony coordinated by Earl N. Smith, III,  assistant dean of student affairs for the College of Arts and Sciences; Christopher Hunter, associate professor of civil engineering; and Yvette Harps Logan, retired associate professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design. The awards program also recognized members of the Rhode Island Onyx Senior Honor Society. Its annual induction ceremony honors graduating seniors of African descent who achieve 3.30 or higher grade point averages.

This year’s Black Scholar Award recipients are:

William Gould Award for All-Around Outstanding Achievement

Central Falls’ Naleen Camara entered URI as a Talent Development Scholar and quickly became involved with causes she cared about and established herself as a leader – both on and off campus. From serving as a Talent Development liaison, to joining the Student Entertainment Committee, to acting as a resident assistant and an orientation leader, she has worked to help inspire others to reach their full potential. As an ambassador for multicultural students, a member of the Multicultural Unity Student Involvement Council (M.U.S.I.C) and URI D.R.I.V.E., she has pursued her passion to help amplify the voices of Black students, specifically Black women, on campus. A Dean’s List student since her first semester, Camara, a double major in writing and rhetoric and public relations, was also a recipient of the 2021 University Academic Excellence Award for Writing and Rhetoric and was a Robert L. Rainville Award nominee.

Saint Elmo Brady Award for Outstanding Achievement in Science

Deborah Adenakan of Wakefield was a cell and molecular biology major who, over the past four years, has grown from a shy but well prepared student to a leader who has not only gained confidence presenting before a group of 150 people – but who also has the skill and desire to help others begin to master the material. According to her nominator, Adenakan is “thoughtful and reflective in all that she does,” including research undertaken last summer to examine the ways in which college students navigate the concept of privilege, which required her to learn new techniques for analyzing qualitative data and look critically at her own views on privilege, race and education.

Estes Benson Awards for Academic Achievement

Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Okele received the Estes Benson Award for Academic Achievement

Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Okele from Cranston, an English major with a double-minor in fine arts and classics, graduated the University in only three years with a 4.0 grade point average. In addition to receiving the Estes Benson Award, Okele won first place in the 2020 Undergraduate Critical Essay Contest for her piece, “Faculties and Detection in Emma: The Judicious Laws of the Brain,” and was a recipient of the 2021 University Academic Excellence Award for English. Okele has many interests, including insects, astronomy, art composition, mythology and new pens. She also serves as the audiovisual expert at her church and has participated in DownCity Design programs. She will be pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a teaching assistantship in the fall.

Sheaffeel Gedeon received the Estes Benson Award for Academic Achievement

Sheaffeel Gedeon of Brockton, Massachusetts was a double-major in kinesiology and biology, on pre-physician assistant track with a minor in Leadership Studies. In addition to serving as a resident Assistant for two years, Gedeon was a URI 101 Mentor and served on the Executive Board and handled communications outreach for URI D.R.I.V.E. Importantly, and directly related to his interests and major, he was a first responder for URI’s Emergency Medical Services and worked as an intern and wellness coordinator for Trine Healthcare, a local assisted living facility in Providence. After gaining some additional experience working in direct care, Gedeon hopes to attend graduate school to pursue a career as a physician assistant in emergency medicine.    

Arthur L. Hardge Award for All-Around Outstanding Community Service

In addition to volunteering as a student mentor with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Providence Princes 2 Kings program, Jason Ramos of Central Falls has parlayed his work as a health studies major to help improve community health and wellness among the residents at Charles Place Senior Living in Providence. Ramos has also served as a Talent Development Ambassador, answering questions and providing guidance, for incoming students to the URI Talent Development Program and as a networking educator with Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Cumberland, motivating students and helping support and enhance their STEM skills. Ramos has been a member of the Cape Verdean Student Association and also volunteered as an assistant track and field coach with Times2 STEM Academy in Providence.

Martin Luther King Jr. Awards for Outstanding Leadership and Contribution to the University Community

Simon Olaoye received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Outstanding Leadership and Contribution to the University Community

Born in Ibadan, Nigeria, Simon Olaoye immigrated to the United States with his family in 2004, finally settling in Pawtucket. Olaoye transferred to the University of Rhode Island as a Talent Development Scholar majoring in kinesiology and biology with the goal of pursuing a career in physical therapy. Once arriving at URI, according to his nominator, “his commitment to the URI community has been constant.” As a senior resident assistant, Olayoe developed programs that fostered a dialogue and educated his residents on issues that disproportionately impact marginalized populations of people. As a member of Brothers on a New Direction and a student leader, he has served as a role model and a mentor, becoming instrumental in the success of his peers and recognizing the need to give back to his community and empower others. “More than what he has accomplished for himself,” says his nominator, is “his legacy upon degree completion that will certainly have impacted the lives and  trajectory of others.”

Austyn Ramsay received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Outstanding Leadership and Contribution to the University Community

A political science major with a pre-law focus, Austyn Ramsay of New London, Connecticut has become an important student leader on campus. Ramsay became involved with the URI Student Senate in 2018 as chair of the Student Organizations Committee and, in 2020, ran for and was elected student body president. In 2020, Ramsay founded the new student organization Women in Law to focus on helping women and other non-traditionally represented minorities prepare for law school. She was also heavily involved with P.I.N.K. Women (Powerful, Independent, Notoriously, Knowledgeable) on campus. Last year, the Political Science Department awarded Ramsay a David Warren Award for High Distinction. Most recently, she received the 2021 University Academic Excellence Award for Political Science.

Harvey Robert Turner Award for Outstanding Leadership and Contribution to the University of Rhode Island Black Community

Cierra Wornum of Wakefield was a double major in political science and journalism who aspires to work in public service and help improve the lives of people in underrepresented communities. While working in URI’s Office of Budget and Financial Planning, Wornum has sought out and secured summer opportunities as an intern in the office of U.S. Senator Jack Reed, as a fellow with the very competitive Public Policy and International Affairs Junior Summer Institute at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. Most recently, she has been serving as a public affairs intern for The Borgen Project, a nonprofit organization organized to fight global poverty, working to persuade members of Congress to continue funding for critical international aid programs. She has also served as a liaison to the URI Student Senate’s Diversity Committee. Worum plans to attend graduate school to study public policy or public administration.

Sojourner Truth Award for Scholarly Persistence and Dedication

Providence’s Samarah Jonfelix was a double major in public relations and communications studies. As a homeschooled student with minimal experience in a typical school setting, Jonfelix’s first experiences as a college student were challenging. According to her nominator, and using Jonfelix’s own words, “college life felt like a roller coaster ride. The climb, the twists, the turns – (she) had to learn to hold on tight and not let go.” Yet, according to her nominator, she was able to grind it out when the journey seemed unclear and very daunting. Despite doing poorly as a freshman she dusted herself off and got back up again, working “hard as a Talent Development Scholar to bring honor to the program by striving for academic excellence every semester.”

Althea Gibson Scholar-Athlete Award

Kelly MacDonnell received the Althea Gibson Scholar-Athlete Award

Kelly MacDonnell of Queens, New York is the proud daughter of two immigrant parents. A Dean’s List student since her freshman year, MacDonnell also walked on to the URI track and field team as a freshman and became a scholarship athlete. As a five year member of the track team, MacDonnell captained the team her final two years. She is also a pre-health ambassador, undergraduate teaching assistant, research assistant, and tutor for other student-athletes. MacDonnell has volunteered for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, and interned at local institutions such as South County Hospital and Ocean State Community Wellness Center. During her last year at URI, MacDonnell served as the student-athlete representative for the Atlantic 10 Commission on Racial, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion committee. This committee serves as a voice for social justice within the Atlantic 10 conference. As a double-major in kinesiology and writing and rhetoric, MacDonnell hopes to attend physician assistant school and specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.

Jackie Robinson Scholar-Athlete Award

Maxwell Dickens received the Jackie Robinson Scholar-Athlete Award

Maxwell Dickens of Lumberton, New Jersey was a standout student-athlete and member of URI’s track and field team. A double major in global business and Chinese with a minor in digital media, Dickens is a Centennial Scholar and an accomplished leader on and off campus, serving as the track team’s representative during high school recruitment and as an executive board member of URI’s  Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. As part of the committee, Dickens was hand-picked to help organize some of URI Athletics’ largest events, including the “Rammys,” a  senior student-athlete recognition event, and to represent student-athletes during Faculty Senate presentations and in meetings with senior administrators. Dickens also leads projects for Delta Sigma Pi, the College of Business’ premier honor society; spent time studying abroad in Shanghai and completed a prestigious summer internship with a Fortune 100 multinational firm. According to his nominator, Dickens “serves as a role model for URI  students and is a shining example of Black excellence on our campus.” 

Donald Cunnigen Awards for Excellence in Graduate Studies

Kayla Williams received the Donald Cunnigen Award for Excellence in Graduate Studies (Masters Student)

Kayla Williams from New Castle, Delaware, who is pursuing her Master of Marine Affairs, has wanted a career in ocean science since she was 12 years old. She has completed internships with the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Marine Education Research and Rehabilitation Institute. Williams has served as an educator for the Delaware Museum of Natural History and as a volunteer and mentor for the Wilmington, Delaware non-profit One Village Alliance, where she worked to lift up young men and women of color by encouraging their participation in the arts and sciences. Williams is a recipient of a URI Graduate School Dean’s Diversity Fellowship and is currently finalizing her thesis research on marine mammal conservation in the United States’ National Marine Sanctuaries. Following her graduation in August, she hopes to work in NOAA’s Protected Resources Division to protect marine mammals from a variety of threats due to human activity.

Irine Neba Mforsoh received the Donald Cunnigen Award for Excellence in Graduate Studies (Ph.D. Student)

Originally from Cameroon, Irine Neba Mforsoh is the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics from the University of Rhode Island. Her research has focused on the performance of elastomeric coatings and coated structures when subjected to aggressive marine environments. As such, she has worked with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport and the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Philadelphia through the Naval Research Enterprise Internship Program. Mforsoh has received numerous awards, including the URI Graduate School Dean’s Diversity Fellowship, the Haythornthwaite Foundation Student Travel Award, and won first place in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers ‘s first annual paper competition. Through her work in the Dynamic Photomechanics Laboratory at URI she has also mentored undergraduates in the University’s Science and Engineering Fellows Program. Mforsoh recently accepted a position with NUWC.

In addition to the above awards, the following graduating seniors were also inducted into the Rhode Island Onyx Senior Honor Society:

  • Deborah Adenekan of Wakefield
  • Naleen Camara of Central Falls
  • Kim Colquhoun Gibbs of Waterbury, Connecticut
  • Desiree Delande of East Providence
  • Hadassah Duplan of Cranston     
  • Emily Fernandes of Lincoln
  • Sheaffeel Gedeon of Brockton, New York
  • Kelly MacDonnell of Saint Albans, New York
  • Jourdan Miller of Seymour, Connecticut
  • Jennifer Moniz of Moultonborough, New Hampshire
  • Seraphina Negash of Providence
  • Nataly Neves of Woonsocket
  • Oluwatoyin Okele of Cranston
  • Itoro Okokon of Smithfield
  • Shelley Oliveira Barbosa of Providence
  • Raquel Ortiz of Johnston
  • Austyn Ramsay of New London, Connecticut
  • Kufre Samuel of Providence
  • Alexis Tavares of Johnston
  • Cindy Thompson of South Windsor, Connecticut
  • Nancy Touze of Providence