Outstanding Americans by Choice

Image of an American by Choice Certificate

The Outstanding Americans by Choice initiative recognizes the outstanding achievements of naturalized U.S. citizens. Through civic participation, professional achievement, and responsible citizenship, recipients of this honor have demonstrated their commitment to this country and to the common civic values that unite us as Americans.

USCIS will recognize naturalized citizens who have made significant contributions to both their community and their adopted country on a case-by-case basis.

2021 Outstanding Americans by Choice Recipients

Note: The following biographies have been provided by the ABC recipients.

Judge Rya Zobel
Event date and location: September 17, 2021, Washington, DC

The Honorable Rya W. Zobel, Senior United States District Court Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts

Nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, the Honorable Rya Zobel became the first woman to be named to the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, taking senior status in 2014.

As a child, Rya Zobel grew up in Nazi Germany. She was born in 1931, the first child of Paul Wiechart, a German who worked for a printing and publishing company, and his Hungarian wife, Elsie. In 1945, Russian troops arrested Zobel’s father, and she never saw him again. As he was being taken away, he tasked Zobel to take care of her mother and younger brother. A few hours later, soldiers took her mother away. She spent 10 years in Russian prisons and prison camps. Friends helped the two children and, when relatives who lived in what had become West Germany learned what happened, they arranged for the children to be brought to their aunt’s home in Coburg.

When their two Hungarian American uncles, who lived in New York, received word of these events, the older one hurried to Germany to help. He quickly began the process of bringing the children to the United States. It was not seamless, but on January 3, 1947, the children embarked on the SS Ernie Pyle for the passage to the United States. The former troop ship was, on this occasion, filled with refugees. It was a stormy thirteen-day voyage, but when the ship arrived in New York harbor all the passengers were on deck to salute the Statue of Liberty. To this day, Zobel remembers being greeted by the Statue of Liberty upon her entry into the United States.

Zobel and her brother lived with their uncle and his family on Long Island and were immediately enrolled in school. They also had to speak only English at home. After two-and-a-half years, Zobel had mastered the English language, graduated from high school, and enrolled in Radcliffe College. She was one of a few women to graduate Harvard Law School in 1956. She was among the first women to become partners in a major Boston law firm, Goodwin, Procter & Hoar. In 1979 she became the first woman appointed an Article III judge to any court in the First Circuit, and later, the first woman Director of the Federal Judicial Center, established by Congress in 1967, in Washington, DC. In September, 2020, Zobel received the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, the first-ever woman District Judge to win the award.

Although Zobel became an American citizen over 70 years ago, she still feels the pride of citizenship that she articulates when she administers the oath of allegiance to new immigrants during naturalization ceremonies. She encourages new citizens to “maintain vigilance, preserve the liberty of this country, and participate in the government.” Since the new citizens now “have a stake in the self-government of this country,” she urges them to exercise their right to vote.

Sgt. Aquilino Gonell
Event date and location: September 17, 2021, Washington, DC
Photo credit: Gonell family

Sergeant Aquilino Gonell, U.S. Capitol Police

Sgt. Aquilino Gonell is an officer with the U.S. Capitol Police. On July 27, he testified before Congress about the events that took place on January 6 at the U.S. Capitol Building. In his emotional testimony before the House Select Committee, Sergeant Gonell joined three other officers in denouncing the attackers and detailing the violence they faced that day.

Sergeant Gonell immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1992. He was the first in his family to graduate college, join the U.S. Army, and become a police officer. He has proudly taken the oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States several times throughout his life – first when he joined the U.S. Army, when he became a U.S. citizen, when he joined the Army Reserve, and most recently, when he was promoted to sergeant with the U.S. Capitol Police.  He said on January 6, he fulfilled his commitment to the United States one more time by defending the U.S. Capitol and members of Congress.

Sergeant Gonell served in Iraq with the U.S. Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Even with the threat of bomb-filled roads, he volunteered to conduct supply missions for U.S. and allied forces and local Iraqi schools. On January 6, while on American soil, he said he was more afraid of the violence that took place at the Capitol than he ever felt while serving in Iraq.

Hours into the attack on the Capitol, Sergeant Gonell later learned that his wife and relatives were trying to desperately contact him, but it wasn’t until 4:26 p.m. that he had a chance to text his wife to let her know he was alive. He made it home at 4:00 a.m. the next day and only four hours later, at 8:00 a.m., he was already on his way back to the Capitol. He continued to work for 15 consecutive days until after the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Sergeant Gonell sustained multiple injuries and was hit with so much chemical sprays that the liquid soaked through to his skin. Sergeant Gonell had right foot and left shoulder surgery and is recovering from his injuries today.  He believes the investigation into the events that occurred at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6 is essential to our democracy.

ABC 2021 Sandra Lindsay
Event date and location: July 2, 2021, Washington, DC
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/Northwell Health

Sandra Lindsay, Director of Patient Care Services for Critical Care, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Northwell Health
New Hyde Park, NY

Sandra Lindsay is the Director of Patient Care Services for Critical Care at Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center. She knows first-hand the health impacts COVID-19 has had on her patients. When she first heard that companies were working to create a vaccine for COVID-19, she remembers telling her friends and family that she would be the first in line to take it. In December 2020, Lindsay indeed became the first person in the United States to get the COVID-19 vaccine outside of clinical trials. 

During the height of the pandemic, Lindsay recalls working alongside her team for long hours trying to save critically ill patients who were fighting for their lives against the coronavirus. Keeping up with the volume of patients was difficult. At home, she had her newly born grandson who was born prematurely. Fearing she might infect him, she did what any loving and protective grandmother would do—she kept her distance to keep him safe.

Lindsay understands that many people are still skeptical about the vaccines and the speed at which the vaccines were developed. However, she believes that proper measures were taken to make sure the vaccines are safe and effective. She says the COVID-19 vaccine is the country’s best defense against fighting the coronavirus and encourages others to trust the science.

Lindsay came to the United States in 1986 at the age of 18 and always knew that she wanted to become a nurse. She describes graduating from nursing school as the proudest moment of her life. Since then, she has earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and recently, a doctorate in health sciences. Ms. Lindsay became a naturalized citizen in 1997.

Photo of Imaculee Illibagiza
Event date and location: June 20, 2021, New York, NY

Immaculée Ilibagiza, Author and Motivational Speaker
New York, NY

Born and raised in a small village in Rwanda, Immaculée Ilibagiza enjoyed a peaceful childhood with her loving parents and three brothers. She attended the National University of Rwanda to study electrical and mechanical engineering. While visiting her family on Easter break in 1994, Ilibagiza’s life was completely transformed. On April 6 of that year, the Rwandan President’s plane was shot down over the capital city of Kigali. This assassination of the Hutu president sparked months of massacres of Tutsi tribe members throughout the country.

Immaculée found shelter at a pastor's home, where she and seven other women hid in a small 3x4 foot bathroom for 91 days. Filled with anger and resentment, Immaculée turned to prayer using the rosary beads that her devout Catholic father gave her before she went into hiding. This was a turning point in her life. In addition to finding peace, she also taught herself English using only a Bible and dictionary. When Immaculée was finally liberated from her hiding place, she weighed only 65 pounds and found her entire family had been brutally murdered, with the exception of one brother who was studying abroad.

In 1998, Immaculée emigrated from Rwanda to the United States. She worked for peace through the United Nations and shared her story of survival with co-workers and friends who had encouraged her to write about her experience. Immaculée’s first book, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (2006), became a New York Times bestseller, sold over 2 million copies, and has been translated into 20 languages. Her story has also been made into a documentary titled, The Diary of Immaculée (2006).

Immaculée has received five honorary doctoral degrees and published multiple books about her faith and her life. Today, she is regarded as one of world's leading speakers on faith, hope and forgiveness. She has shared this universal message with world leaders, school children, multinational corporations, churches, and at events and conferences around the world, including a presentation to over 200,000 people in Sao Paulo, Brazil. A major motion picture version of  her story is scheduled for international release in 2022.

Picture of Sandy Dang
Event date and location: May 27, 2021, Camp Springs, MD

Sandy Hoa Dang
Co-founder and Principal, Coinnovate Consulting
Washington, DC

Sandy Dang is co-founder and principal of Coinnovate Consulting in Washington D.C., which provides leadership training programs for corporations, nonprofits, governmental agencies, and academic institutions. Dang has cultivated a team of professionals to build the next generation of leaders. Her passion is to help young people maximize their leadership potential to benefit society.

At ten years old, Dang and her ethnic-Chinese family fled Hanoi, Vietnam, and spent weeks at sea between China and Hong Kong, only to end up in a series of refugee camps. Over three years, she received no formal education. At thirteen, she and her family resettled in the United States in 1981, first in Salt Lake City, Utah, then in Brooklyn, New York. Because of her personal experiences and the hardship that she endured in a new country, Dang has devoted her career to empowering young people. For more than a decade, she served as founder and executive director of Asian American Leadership, Empowerment, and Development, an organization that supports immigrant and refugee families through a broad array of educational and social services.

In 2011, President Barack Obama appointed Dang to serve on the Board of Directors of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), and from 2014-2018 she served as executive director of VEF, a special initiative by the U.S. Congress to strengthen bilateral relations between the United States and Vietnam through educational exchanges related to science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, and technology. During her tenure, Dang established a leadership development program helping hundreds of VEF Fellows.

Dang holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Duke University, a Master of Social Work from Catholic University of America, and a Master in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School. In addition to English, she is fluent in Cantonese and Vietnamese.

Picture of a Nguyen Dinh Thang
Event date and location: May 27, 2021, Camp Springs, MD

Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang
Chief Executive Officer and President, Boat People SOS
Falls Church, VA

Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang first joined Boat People SOS (BPSOS) in 1988 as a volunteer. In 1995 he launched an advocacy campaign that resulted in the resettlement of over 18,000 former boat people from Vietnam to the United States. In 1997, Dr. Thang initiated a long-term effort to build capacity for the Vietnamese American community. He has since built BPSOS from a small, all-volunteer organization into the largest Vietnamese American non-profit organization. BPSOS has operations in half a dozen locations in the United States and a regional headquarters in Southeast Asia and has a vast Vietnamese-language media network. Simultaneously, Dr. Thang has mentored over 50 faith-based and community-based organizations and secured $4 million to support their work.

Since 1989, Dr. Thang has testified before Congress on human rights issues, most recently in 2018, where he raised awareness of Vietnam’s imprisonment of 170 religious and political prisoners of conscience. For the past two decades, Dr. Thang has launched many national and international initiatives, including Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers and Center for Asylum Protection, that provide legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers in the first asylum countries; Coalition to Abolish Modern-day Slavery in Asia, which has rescued or assisted in the rescue of 11,000 victims of sex and labor trafficking in 20 countries; the Disaster Relief and Restore Program, which has helped tens of thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina (2005), the BP Oil Spill (2010), and Hurricane Harvey (2017), among others; the Renewing Democracy Fund, which trains young leaders and encourages Vietnamese American participation in American politics. Dr. Thang has received numerous awards for his contributions to the United States, refugee populations, and global human rights.

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