New award will help fuel underrepresented Lumberjacks’ unique research and creative projects

Student examining a jar during an ecological research project

Underrepresented students at NAU are getting even more opportunities to engage in impactful research, creative projects and internships thanks to a new fellowship award from President José Luis Cruz Rivera and his wife and Honors College professor Rima Brusi.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Emerging Scholars Fellowship Award, supported by an initial $100,000 endowment pledged by Cruz Rivera and Brusi in Fall 2023, aims to increase opportunities for students to participate in mentored research, scholarly work, internships and creative activities. Named after the famed Black activist, historian and sociologist, the award provides students with $5,000 to conduct research, creative scholarship or an innovative project under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, especially those who identify as Black or African American, are strongly encouraged to apply.

Cassie Bonah posing in front of a biomedical science poster she created
The fellowship award is already supporting the research and projects of NAU students like Cassie Bonah.

Inspired by the university’s strategic plan, NAU 2025 – Elevating Excellence, which articulates a bold vision for delivering equitable postsecondary value and propelling lifelong economic mobility and social impact, the award is an important vehicle for driving transformative learning opportunities. 

“Our goal with this gift is to make transformational learning opportunities equitably accessible to talented undergraduate students of all backgrounds, identities and lived experiences,” Brusi said. “This award ensures we are providing meaningful experiences for underrepresented students to engage in high-impact learning activities, mentored by our expert faculty, that will advance knowledge, support their success and broaden horizons as Lumberjacks pursue careers of consequence and live lives of purpose.”

Advancing science and uniting communities

The award has already created transformative opportunities for two Lumberjacks: In the 2023-24 academic year, it supported the undergraduate research of sophomore biomedical science and Spanish student James Davis, and it helped Cassie Bonah, a graduating senior who earned her degree in biomedical science, organize a Black Fashion Show.

With a passion for researching vaccines to prevent disease, Davis spent the year working in assistant professor Naomi Lee’s lab. His work focused on proposing a new HPV vaccine that covers a wide variety of HPV strains and has larger distribution capabilities than the current vaccines. Davis said a revamped vaccine would support communities who experience higher rates of the disease, including Indigenous populations.

“This award is helping me reach my academic and career goals by allowing me the opportunity to continue my research and create professional connections with mentors and scientists in the field,” Davis said.  

Under Lee’s guidance, Davis is preparing to publish a manuscript on his research at the end of the summer.

After graduation, Davis intends to pursue a Ph.D. with a focus on immunology. He aims to take this research experience and education back to the classroom as a university professor, representing historically underrepresented academic scholars in STEM.

Four students walking down a runway in traditional and historical clothing associated with the African diaspora
With support from the fellowship award, Cassie Bonah organized an event that showcased many different identities in the global Black diaspora through fashion. Photos: Nicholas Sanchez

Bonah said she aspires to help people by becoming a doctor—but while at NAU, she committed to helping people in a different way. The biomedical science major resolved to bring Black students and employees together by organizing a fashion show that celebrated Black cultures and traditions from around the world. The Honors College capstone project showcased a diversity of cultural attire, highlighting all the different identities in the Black diaspora through fashion.

“Coordinating all of these things—funding, models, lighting, venues, clothing and food that reflects Black cultures and is prepared properly—taught me that our community is thriving and is so much more resilient than I thought,” Bonah said. “It also showed me that I’m capable of anything I put my mind to, even things that are way outside of my comfort zone.”

Bonah walked across the commencement stage earlier this month and intends to continue interconnecting her passions for medicine and Black culture, further developing the professional and personal skills she’ll need as a physician serving people from diverse backgrounds.

Double the impact 

Motivated by Cruz Rivera and Brusi’s strategic vision for NAU, donors Laura and Gary Maurer made a $1 million unrestricted gift to the Greatest Need – President’s Fund and The Honors College Fund. Empowering leadership to direct their gift to the most immediate needs, the Maurers were delighted to know Cruz Rivera is directing a portion of their gift to student scholarships and the W.E.B. Du Bois Emerging Scholars Fellowship Award, doubling the endowment to $200,000 and guaranteeing even more support for current and future Lumberjacks.  

“Gary and I believe NAU is among the top few educational institutions to value equitable access and opportunities for students while keeping its eye on the ultimate purpose of fostering the ability to think critically,” said Dr. Laura Maurer. “We are thrilled to know our gift to the Greatest Need – President’s Fund will support the W.E.B. Du Bois Emerging Scholars Fellowship Award, helping to remove financial barriers for students and equip them with what they need to succeed in their academic journeys.”

With the establishment and growth of the W.E.B. Du Bois Emerging Scholars Fellowship Award, NAU has increased its endowments in the past year to support African American students by more than 70%. As the university seeks to elevate its commitment to broadening participation and realizing uniformly high attainment rates for all students, private support for endowments like these helps fuel students’ persistence and success.

Applications for the fellowship award are now open for the 2024-2025 academic year. To apply, visit 

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Jill Kimball | NAU Communications
(928) 523-2282 |

NAU Communications