Cell and molecular biology major honored with 33rd annual Rainville Award

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 17, 2021 — The University of Rhode Island recently honored three undergraduate student leaders and one student organization as part of its  33rd annual A. Robert Rainville Student Leadership Awards ceremonies. The award is named in memory of A. Robert Rainville ’64, vice president for Student Affairs 1980-86, who was a friend and mentor to students.

This year’s recipients are Marland Chang of Cranston, Student Leadership Award; James Cocozza of Cranston, Employee Excellence Award, and Naomi Pajarillo of Providence, Robert L. Carothers Servant Leadership award. Members of the University of Rhode Island’s Diversity Dialogues were awarded The Team Excellence Award.

Below are the details about each recipient:

Student Leadership Award recipient: Marland Chang ‘22

A U.S. Army Veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, and a junior communicative disorders major, Chang’s leadership reintroduced the Student Veteran Organization as a recognized student veteran of America chapter, which started with just one member in 2018, but currently has more than 50 student veterans and dependent points of contact. Under Chang’s leadership, the URI chapter raised funds that helped student veterans attend NATCON in 2019 and 2020. NATCON is the largest student veteran leadership conference with a mission to help support student veterans academically and professionally.

Chang’s strong drive and perseverance have positively impacted the student veterans community, even during the uncertain times of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chang acted swiftly and sent an email to members of Congress,  advocating for policy and legislation to go into immediate effect to protect student veteran benefits related to the GI Bill and housing allowances, in the midst of the governor’s executive order to close all schools and higher education institutions. On March 13,     2020, a bill that protected the rights of student veterans under the GI bill and housing allowance was drafted and enacted by Congress. Chang acknowledges the common  “self-reliant” and “not-to-be-vulnerable” mentality within the student veteran community. However, he encourages his peers to ask for resources and support and continue to serve the community even after serving in the military.

Robert L. Carothers Servant Leadership Award recipient: Naomi Pajarillo ‘21

Pajarillo, a senior cell, and molecular biology major, has been involved in various feminist and community-building programs at URI but says being a NIH-MARC-U*STAR trainee is her proudest accomplishment. NIH-Marc-U* STAR stands for the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research (U-STAR). It is a research and professional development program supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH)/ National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) for undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds. As a MARC-U*STAR trainee, she mentored students, hosted panels, presented research at diverse conferences, and helped underrepresented students succeed in higher education. As a part of her Coronavirus research study, Pajarillo collected nasal and saliva samples at the URI Mobile Health Unit, which was located in a predominantly-Hispanic community in Pawtucket. Through her work, she learned that several community members were unaware of the severity of COVID-19. She reached out to marginalized communities to explain the testing process and educated people about the virus in Spanish.

Moreover, as the president of CELS (College of the Environment and Life Sciences) Seeds of Success, Pajarillo encouraged black, Indigenous and people of color undergraduate students to apply for summer research internships, hosted STEM panels to discuss science as an inclusive field, and inspired the community to combat the stigma of underrepresented people in academia. A mental health advocate, she also raised more than  $21,000 through a GoFundMe campaign for the family of her friend who died by suicide. “Bringing awareness, persuasion, empathy,  and listening are the aspects of leadership that I feel need to be reinforced in the community, “ said Pajarillo. “Whichever role I am in, I always try to understand what the other person is trying to express, what their concerns and goals are, and try to figure out how I can positively impact their situation.”

Employee Excellence Award recipient: James Cocozza ‘22

Pharmacy major, James Cocozza, credits being a Resident Assistant for more than 5 years and the president of the Housing and Residential Life Community Leadership Board for teaching him what true leadership is about. Cocozza has been nominated for a Rainville award for five consecutive years. Cocozza helped create, organize and present training for more than 100 hundred student and professional staff. Under his leadership, the leadership board became a vehicle that allowed RAs to express their concerns and speak about issues they wanted to be addressed. “James’ true strength is in his ability to care for others and to forget about himself while doing that,” said Wesley Cabral ‘21, chair of the diversity council for the residence council. “He is constantly encouraging the students within his residence halls and the RA community to push past their limits and make the environment safe and inspiring while taking on one of the most difficult majors ever.”

Team Excellence Award recipient: Diversity Dialogues

Diversity Dialogues’ main goal is to create a safe space at the University of Rhode Island where students can learn, discuss, and reflect on topics regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion through student-led workshops. The workshops help foster learning and understanding of what can be difficult topics because of the lack of inclusive curriculum in American school systems. Diversity Dialogues have created workshops for more than 1,500 students, including organizations such as Greek Life, Resident Advisors, URI 101, as well as education majors and more. Through the members’ workshops, they conducted pre-and post-tests on subjects such as microaggression, social identity, and privilege, and saw significant statistical evidence of how people grasped the material and learned how to become better allies to their marginalized peers. The group recognizes that ignorance and misunderstanding of topics involving diversity, equity, and inclusion stem from a lack of consistent curriculum taught in schools about power, social identity, and implicit stereotypes. The team continues to make efforts that provide opportunities and better understanding to students to improve URI’s cultural competence.

“These students have enthusiastically taken on what I believe is our biggest need as a URI community, and a society: engaging people in critical conversations about topics that are challenging but necessary,” said Kristina Perelli, director of New Student Programs in University College for Academic Success. “This team is disrupting the status quo and creating student-driven change through education and the power of peer-to-peer learning and mentoring.”

Recipients of this year’s A. Robert Rainville Team Excellence Award is Carlee Kerr ‘21 of East Windsor, New Jersey, Maya Moran ‘21 from Brockton, Mass., and Veronica Seay ‘21 from Brockton, Massachusetts and Joseph Amaral from Warwick