As the Class of 2021 prepares for Commencement, May 6–8, The College Today will highlight how some of our graduating seniors spent their time at CofC, and what the future holds.

Vernon L. Kennedy Jr. has done a lot during his four years at the College of Charleston. The biology major, who is concentrating in molecular biology, recently received the 2021 Presidential Award for Scholarship, Leadership and Service – the College’s most prestigious honor for students. Later this summer, he will head to Baltimore, Maryland, to work for the National Institutes of Health as a post-baccalaureate fellow.

And that’s just what he’s accomplished in the last few weeks. Earlier this spring, Kennedy was selected as one of 60 students from across the country to participate in the Council on Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill, a prestigious event that celebrates students’ work and supports undergraduate research at the federal level. In 2020, Kennedy was a recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship, one of the nation’s highest honors for undergraduates studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

“His four-year tenure here at the College is a blueprint for what it means to be a Cougar,” says Kenyatta Grimmage, associate director for access initiatives and pre-college programs in the College’s Office of Admissions. “Vernon has gained the admiration of faculty, staff and his peers alike because we all have found him to be focused academically, consistent in his treatment of everyone he encounters, and his level of humility is second to none. The College of Charleston has been truly fortunate to have Vernon as a student-leader on our campus. Vernon epitomizes the academic discipline, unwavering determination and selfless attitude that we desire in all our students.”

Above: Kennedy talks about his research for the Council on Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill event.

Kennedy fell in love with CofC when members of the Student Ambassadors program came to visit his high school in Winnsboro, South Carolina. Student ambassadors help support the recruitment and retention of multicultural and first-generation students through active engagement and community service projects.

“Student ambassadors offer a great sense of community and often serve as a springboard for new students who come to campus and want to join an organization, so they become a part of our community and then we get them involved in so many other things, and they get to branch out,” says Kennedy, current president of the organization. “It’s great to be able to see the fruits of your labors when other students succeed. One of my favorite parts of being a student-volunteer is being able to have an impact in that way.”

Kennedy really enjoys sharing what he’s learned with others and has found various opportunities to mentor students.

“Pursuing any of the pre-health disciplines (e.g., medicine, pharmacy, dentistry) can be challenging,” says Kennedy, who is also a student in the Honors College. “As a pre-health mentor and fellow pre-med student, I’m able to empathize with my mentees and offer them guidance based on my personal experiences and my training with Health Professions Advising Director Karen Eippert. It’s an awesome feeling when students can leave our meetings feeling more determined and confident as they pursue their various career paths.”

Eippert, Class of ’92, agrees wholeheartedly, saying Kennedy “embodies the character, compassion and intelligence to become an outstanding medical scientist and make a difference in the lives of those he serves.”

Council on Undergraduate Research’s

Vernon Kennedy’s research at CofC has focused on spinal cord injuries. (Photos by Heather Moran)

Kennedy’s impact extends beyond his fellow students and into the research lab where he is the lead student researcher for psychology professor Jennifer Wilhelm, where he’s been exploring the changes in synaptic connections around motor neurons in the spinal cord after a traumatic peripheral nerve injury.

“Research is empowering. It’s an interesting experience, because as you’re working on a research project, there aren’t a lot of people in the world doing what you’re doing, and you become this micro-expert on the subject,” says Kennedy, who has been an active member of the College’s chapter of the South Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation (SCAMP) program and served as vice president of the organization for the 2020–21 academic year. “Then you take your expertise and present at conferences and have the opportunity to meet with other individuals who are experts in their fields. We all bring so many different things to the table, and that’s what research can afford you.”

And he’ll be putting those research skills to good use as a post-baccalaureate fellow for the National Institutes of Health’s Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program, where he’ll be working on a project within the Institute on Aging, studying the secretory function of the choroid plexus. After that, he plans return to school to earn an M.D. and a doctorate, with the ultimate goal of becoming a physician-scientist.

“Vernon is a true scholar and leader,” says Wilhelm. “He has an insatiable curiosity and unwavering dedication to making the world a better place. He embodies all of the best qualities of leadership, academic excellence and service.”