Fifteen URI students receive Black Scholar Awards for outstanding achievement

KINGSTON, R.I. – August 8, 2023 – Fifteen University of Rhode Island students, including two graduate students, were honored recently for their academic and community achievements at the University’s 26th 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 athletics.

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. 

This year’s event featured the highest number of nominees and nominations at 33 and 45, respectively. Students can be nominated in multiple categories; however, scholars are only able to receive one award. In a first for the Estes Award for highest grade-point average, both scholars achieved cumulative grade point averages greater than 3.90.   

This year’s keynote speaker was Eugenio Fernandez Jr., founder of Asthenis, a community pharmacy and public health hub, located in Wiggin Village, an affordable housing complex in Providence’s West End. Under Fernandez’s guidance, the Asthenis’ model helps to bridge gaps in health equity by leveraging the use of built-in pharmacy to provide free public health guidance and education. A former Black Scholar Award winner, Fernandez is a 2013 URI graduate and is the first and only quadruple degree undergraduate in the University’s history.  

“Dr. Fernandez is the perfect example of who our scholars are – students who are excellent in and also translate those efforts into service for community,” said Christopher Hunter, interim dean, University College for Academic Success, and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, coordinator of the Black Scholar Awards.  

 “The Black Scholar Awards program continues to be an important academic and cultural celebration showcasing Black Excellence on the URI campus that affords us the opportunity to bring communities together to acknowledge our outstanding students with regard to their scholarship and service,” he added.

This year’s Black Scholar Award recipients are:

William Gould Award for All-Around Outstanding Achievement

Joseph Amaral of West Warwick has spent the majority of his time at URI focused on social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion; amplifying Black voices; educating about race and leading in a way that truly impacts and improves the URI community. The Africana studies and communications studies major serves as a student representative on the College of Arts and Science Equity and Anti-Racism Committee, is a student leader with the Africana studies student advisory council and is an executive board member of the Black Lives Matter RI political action committee. Amaral has also been a member of the Black Student Union and was a founder and president of Diversity Dialogues. He has built strong relationships across campus, worked as an academic tutor with URI Athletics and as a teaching assistant, all while maintaining a high grade point average.

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

Cranston’s Stedman Gyamfi-Darkwah is a cell and molecular biology major on a pre-medical track. He has served as a member of the Executive Board for PENSA, a multi-cultural Christian-based student organization with a mission to spread love and the gospel. He has also served on the board of Brothers on a New Direction and was a founder and president of the Alumni of Color Network Student Leaders group. A leader who has excelled both in volunteerism and general service to the URI community, he has expanded those efforts to his academic experience through work with Thundermist Health Center and South County Hospital. Gyamfi-Darkwah plans to take the MCATs in June and begin applying to medical schools.

Harvey Robert Turner Award for Outstanding Service to the University of Rhode Island Black Community

Siena Negash’s focus on serving the Black community at URI has been in increasing the community’s representation and visibility in STEM. She has served on the executive board of the National Society of Black Engineers for several years—including serving as president—and was critical as a co-founder of the Black and Brown Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology Sisterhood, where she is currently serving as vice president. In addition, the biomedical engineering major and applied math minor from Providence, has been undergraduate researcher for the Particle Engineering Laboratory for the past two years, performing work in nanoparticles and nanocomposite microparticles.

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

Maruth-Shah Emilcar, a dietetics major from Pawtucket, has shined as a nutrition educator, receiving a College of Health Sciences Diversity Equity and Inclusion Scholarship and working as a student researcher on the USDA-funded Project stRIde, which aims to address disparities in STEM and nutrition among racially and ethnically diverse Providence and Newport youth attending summer camp at the Boys & Girls Clubs. As part of the project, she assisted in developing evaluation instruments and in delivering a fun and engaging summer camp program to youth. Seeing her natural ability to positively impact youth while making them feel valued, the College’s Office of Community Nutrition and Education hired her as a full-time nutrition educator this past fall. As an educator, she continues this work delivering engaging lessons on nutrition, food safety, cooking, and physical activity to limited-resource families with children in Rhode Island’s urban core, including the cities of Woonsocket and Pawtucket.

Saint Elmo Brady Award for Outstanding Achievement in Science

As Ashlynn Cunningham enters her senior year, the Spring, Texas, native is headed to Taiwan to study Chinese for the next year. In her time at URI, she worked within the lab of Professor Bethany Jenkins within the College of the Environment and Life Sciences in collaboration with Professor Matthew Bertin in the College of Pharmacy, conducting research into harmful algal blooms in Narragansett Bay. In addition to conducting independent research as part of the Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR SURF program, Cunningham, who is majoring in cell and molecular biology as well as Chinese, also presented her work at the 2022 EPSCoR SURF research conference and was a recipient of an Undergraduate Research Innovation Award.

Saint Clair Drake Award for Outstanding Scholarly Research

Providence’s Robin Fidel has been involved in research under the guidance of Professor Rachel Schwartz since the summer of 2021. Her interests lie in the intersection of computational biology and the diversity of immune system genes and how they evolve. As a double major in biotechnology and data science, she presented the preliminary results of her independent study at a student research symposium and is in the midst of writing a research paper for submission to an academic journal. She has also been an active leader in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences Seeds of Success Program and used her experience as an accomplished researcher to support students of color in STEM.

Althea Gibson Scholar-Athlete Award

A double major in kinesiology and English, Xiana Twombly of Lee, New Hampshire, has not only distinguished herself academically, she has also been a women’s track and field standout serving as team captain from 2021 to 2023. In 2021, she was the New England outdoor champion for the long jump and as a member of the 4×100 meter relay team. In 2022, she was the New England indoor runner-up in the long jump and the 4×400 relay. Most recently, she anchored the 4×400 meter relay at the Atlantic 10 Indoor Championships. In addition, she has been a dedicated community member, volunteering with the URI Women’s Track and Field Youth Clinic in 2019, 2020, and 2023 and coaching local youth, ages 4-14, in track and field events.

Jackie Robinson Scholar-Athlete Award

Buffalo, New York’s Paul Woods began his academic and football career at Rutgers University before transferring to URI his junior year. The wide receiver not only played all 11 games in both his junior and senior years, he also had two 100-yard receiving games – one against Elon and one against Maine, with a 68-yard completion against Maine. A Dean’s List student majoring in sports media and communication, Woods has also received a nomination from the National Society of Leadership and Success, the nation’s largest leadership honor society.

David Edmonds Award for Outstanding Artistic and Creative Expression

Aniebet Okon of Providence, who is double-major in sports media and communication and public relations, has been able to merge those two disciplines and combine them with his own interest in graphic design to promote and market football, women’s and men’s soccer and other teams at URI. He also expanded his reach beyond Rhode Island to Queens, New York City, to assist the Queensboro FC men and women’s professional soccer teams – even helping them to develop and promote a community and youth outreach program.

Sojourner Truth Award for Scholarly Persistence and Dedication

When an urgent family matter took her away from her studies in the spring of 2022, Fatu Ndiaye could have let it derail her. Instead, after taking time away and resolving her incomplete coursework during that period, the Woonsocket resident, who was majoring in health studies and minoring in Africana studies, decided to pursue biological sciences as a second major. In addition to working as a resident assistant, she put her academic skills into practice with jobs as a certified nursing assistant and a mental health assistant. She also founded and served as president of Black Women in Medicine and chaired P.I.N.K. Women’s Mentoring Committee. In addition, the research she conducted on maternal health brought her to present before the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs Conference.

Estes Benson Award for Academic Achievement

Nadia Rajan, originally from Perth, Australia, is a varsity tennis athlete who majored in exercise science and is now on track to receive a master’s degree in kinesiology as part of URI’s accelerated bachelor’s to master’s program. In addition to being a Dean’s List student, she received an Atlantic 10 First Team All-Conference award in 2021, a Second Team All-Conference award in 2022 and the Speaker of the House of Representatives Scholar-Athlete Award in 2022. She has also served as a student-athlete representative to the Varsity Tennis Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and as social media coordinator for the Minority Student Athlete Committee.

Matthew Roache, of Warwick, decided to major in kinesiology because it was an opportunity to combine his love of science and sports. He has served as a Residential Academic Mentor for the College of Health Sciences and also worked as an undergraduate research assistant in URI’s Biomechanics Lab. In addition, he has been active in the community volunteering, as well as in intramural sports.

Donald Cunnigen Award for Excellence in Graduate Studies

Asta Habtemichael, of Eritrea, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Oceanography, concluding his work in chemical oceanography. A talented scholar and born leader, Habtemichael’s research has been recognized with numerous internal and external fellowships and awards. He is a student trainee on the Sources, Transport, Exposure, and Effects of PFASs (STEEP) Superfund Research Program Center training core. In addition to research and contributing as co-author on three papers, he has led Diversity and Inclusion Badge Program sessions on the experience of international students for the Graduate School and been a graduate student representative to the College of the Environment and Life Sciences diversity committee.  He has also served as an AGU Landing Ambassador, helping to plan more equitable protocols and programs for the American Geophysical Union membership via their Landing program.

Jesse Duroha is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Engineering, concluding his coursework in  industrial and systems engineering. Originally from Nigeria, he has been working as a research assistant in the Sustainable Innovative Solutions Lab under the guidance of Professor Gretchen Macht, involved in literature review, grant writing, and acting as outreach director coordinating activities around solar energyto bring hands-on experiential learning to K-12 students at various schools and organizations. His work in collaboration with One Cranston helped result in a successful United Way grant to expand STEM education in Cranston middle schools. In addition to supporting a summer workshop at the Cranston YMCA for middle-school and high-school students, he has effectively collaborated with the URI Office of Sustainability on various projects, which earned him a URI Green Thinker Award and a spot as a URI Energy Fellow for the 2021 and 2022 academic years. While conducting his own research on identifying and mitigating occupational safety risks in solar installations and successfully publishing his research paper in the respected Safety Science Journal, Duroha also applied to and was selected to be the lead post-doctoral researcher on an Environmental Defense Fund project to develop a detailed baseline inventory of hydrogen fuel leaks across the United States.

Earl N. Smith III Award for Scholar Activism

While triple-majoring in textiles, fashion merchandising and design; film and media; and computer science, Markeem Rodrigues, of Pawtucket, took on various leadership roles within the university displaying his commitment to social justice, equity and accessibility. He was a two-term president for BOND (Brothers on a New Direction), an executive board member for M.U.S.I.C., and a Resident Academic Advisor and orientation leader. He also took on leadership roles with the Student Entertainment Committee, the National Society for Black Engineers and the Cape Verdean Student Association in addition to serving as a WRIU radio host. Rodrigues has been committed to promoting collaboration and cooperation among groups and people and to nurturing a sense of belonging for students of color.

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

  • Temitope Aina
  • Lagzacine Alexandre
  • Kassia Almeida
  • Joseph Amaral
  • Ashlynn Cunningham
  • Christina Fernandes
  • Robin Fidel
  • Mia Foley
  • Nora Giddings
  • Stedman Gyamfi-Darwah
  • Temitayo Ijaduola
  • Anahee Jean-Gilles
  • Liaynez Jimenez
  • Antineice Muhammad
  • Aniebiet Okon
  • Aniekan Okon
  • Sarima Omodu-Amadi
  • Nadia Rajan
  • Matthew Roache
  • Kaysha Sanon
  • Janaija Santos
  • Tracy Santos
  • Daez-Zhonnie Thomas
  • Sanaiya Watts
  • Titiana Tambi