NATCHITOCHES – Ebenezer Aggrey of Baton Rouge and Derrick Varnado of Gonzales were named R.F. Lewis Scholars and are part of the first cohort of a new program initiated by the University of Louisiana System intended to enhance the experience of Black male students. The R.F. Lewis Scholars Program recruits Black males and provides scholarships, educational programs, mentoring opportunities and co-curricular experiences for the students selected. Each cohort is comprised of two students chosen from each University of Louisiana System member institution for a total of 18 members each year.
Aggrey and Varnado will represent Northwestern State University in the inaugural cohort. The scholars were announced during the UL System’s Black Male Summit in June. The students are sophomores who, beginning this fall, will participate in the three-year program.
The main focus of the R.F. Lewis Scholars program is learning and academic achievement opportunities, specifically research experiences. Students will be paired with a research mentor to connect classroom theory with a real-world problem and will have the opportunity to present their research at the ULS Academic Summit and other conferences. Other components include a study abroad experience, experience in management, leadership and mentoring and a system-wide service learning project.
Starting this fall, students will participate in leadership seminars, meeting online and in person as meetings float between the nine ULS campuses. NSU will host the group this October with Aggrey and Varnado responsible for designing and presenting the program.
In the fall of their junior year, students will enroll in a research and cultural competency course to prepare for their study abroad the following spring where they will present research alongside students from the host institution. Their senior year, they will be engaged in mentoring the newest cohort of scholars and preparing for graduate school, internships or full-time jobs.
Aggrey is a business administration major and a track and field student-athlete. He is a senator in the Student Government Association and a member of Alpha Lambda Delta, African American Caucus and the Presidential Leadership Program, is a Freshman Connector and maintains a 4.0 grade point average.
“I didn’t realize how much of a big deal this was until I was at the Summit,” he said, where he was surrounded by successful men who were there to support the new program. He met the other Scholars and learned about the benefits of the program as an immersive experience, particularly the study abroad component.
“I hope I get a great mentor, someone I can shadow and gain a better experience,” Aggrey said. “As we go through the process, it’s also our duty to be mentors to the next group of sophomores as well. I’m really eager to see what the upcoming years hold.”
Varnado is a communications major and who works on the equipment team for Demon football and in the computer lab at Watson Library. He is a member of Signa Nu Fraternity.
“I’m definitely looking forward to going outside the country and seeing a different viewpoint,” he said. “I expect to use our platform to serve our communities in being impactful and helping other Black students. Those experiences make you a better human.”
“Adding the international exchange piece elevates this program to a whole different level,” said Dr. Marcus Jones, NSU’s interim president who worked with the UL System to design the study abroad component. Providing the young men with mentors and leaders across the campuses will be impactful but having a study abroad experience on their resumes will also make them stand out, he said.
System-wide exchange agreements with other universities are also in development and Jones said there is an accompanying program for parents.
Aggrey and Varnado both said they are already forming bonds with their fellow R.F. Lewis Scholars through daily group chats and both recognize the benefits of the program’s networking opportunities. They are looking forward to working with each other and with the other members of the cohort.
“We realized how similar we are as rising sophomores coming off a COVID year. I look forward to what we can accomplish over the next three years,” Varnado said. “It’s going to be lifechanging.”
More information on the R.F. Lewis Scholars program and a full list of Scholars is available at https://www.ulsystem.edu/rflewis-scholars.