Outstanding Americans by Choice
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.
Note: The following biographies have been provided by the ABC recipients.
Rev. Eugene Cho, President and CEO, Bread for the World, Washington, DC
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Reverend Eugene Cho immigrated to the United States as a child with his parents. After pastoring local churches for nearly thirty years, Rev. Cho is now President and CEO of Bread for the World, a non-partisan Christian advocacy organization made up of individuals, churches, non-profits, and other partners, who work together to advocate for policy changes to end hunger in the United States and around the world by changing the policies and programs that allow hunger to persist.
Rev. Cho also founded One Day’s Wages (ODW) in 2009 and acts as the Board President. ODW is a grassroots movement of people, stories, and actions to alleviate extreme global poverty. The vision of ODW is to create a collaborative movement that promotes awareness, invites simple giving (one day’s wages), and supports sustainable relief through partnerships, especially with small organizations in developing regions.
Rev. Cho was recognized as part of the “The FD200” as one of 200 individuals who best embody the work and spirit of Frederick Douglas as part of the bicentennial celebration of the life and accomplishments of Frederick Douglas. Rev. Cho was also recognized as an everyday hero in the 2012 book “Everyday Heroes: 50 Americans Changing the World One Nonprofit at a Time” and was a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2017.
Rev. Cho is also the author of two books “Thou Shall Not Be a Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics” and “Overrated: Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World?”. Rev. Cho and his spouse Minhee have been married for over 25 years and have three adult children.
Note: The following biographies have been provided by the ABC recipients.
Brigadier General & Deputy Commanding General Stephen L. A. Michael (Ret.), U.S. Army, Kansas City, MO
Stephen L. A. Michael was a brigadier general and deputy commanding general in the U.S. Army. He immigrated from Guyana, South America, in 1979 and was commissioned into the U.S. Army Infantry in 1988.
Michael spent 32 years leading light and airborne infantry formations, commanding at every level through brigade, and serving in a variety of leadership positions in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific.
He first deployed to Somalia in 1992 and culminated his service as the Deputy Commanding General at the Combined Arms Center for Training. Michael has a diverse operational background: with 2-503 Infantry, he took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom I, where the battalion conducted a night combat parachute assault onto Bashur Drop Zone in Northern Iraq and helped secure the city of Kirkuk; he deployed to Ghana and Nigeria as part of JTF Liberia to help the Economic Community of West African States stabilize Liberia as President Charles Taylor was exiled to Nigeria; served as aide de camp to Lieutenant General Kip Ward, then the deputy commander for United States Army Europe and 7th Army - with General Ward, Michael deployed to Israel for 10 months as part of the inaugural Israeli-Palestinian Security Coordinator Mission, helping prepare the Palestinian Authority take control of Gaza; led 2-12 Infantry, in Al Doura, Baghdad as part of the surge; was the deputy director for the Pakistan-Afghanistan and Transregional Threats Coordination Cell, enabling the chairman of the Joint Chiefs’ best military advice on Afghanistan - Pakistan and Transregional Threats.
Towards the end of his career, Michael served in the Indo-Pacific, as deputy commander for Operations, 25th ID; the G-3/5/7 for U.S. Army Pacific, and the Deputy J5 for the Indo-Pacific Command. Michael has consistently said that his story cannot be told anywhere else but in ‘these United States of America.’ His legacy, he believes, is his wonderful family and the soldiers and leaders that he has served, loved, and led.
Michael is married to the former Sandra Stanford of Georgetown, Guyana, and they are proud parents of Vaughn, Shane, Sean, and Chanel. A graduate of the United States Military Academy, Michael holds a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering and was the Senior Service College Fellow to Columbia University for FY 2011.
Esther Olavarria, Former Deputy Director for Immigration, White House Domestic Policy Council, Miami, FL
Esther Olavarria has worked in the immigration and refugee field for decades at numerous non-profit organizations and at the highest levels in the federal government. She was born in Havana, Cuba, and came to the United States in 1962 with her family, where her parents sought protection and opportunity in their newly adopted country. Her parents’ experience leaving their home country and starting new lives in the United States inspired Esther to pursue a career of service on behalf of immigrants and asylum seekers.
Olavarria began as an immigration attorney in 1989 in Miami, Florida, working at various non-profit legal organizations representing asylum seekers and immigrants, including the Haitian Refugee Services, Legal Services of Greater Miami, and the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which she co-founded. Moving to Washington, DC in 1998, she served for nearly 10 years as Senator Edward Kennedy’s immigration counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she worked on a broad range of legislative initiatives, including the DREAM Act and many efforts to enact common sense immigration reform. Joining the Obama Administration in 2009, Olavarria served in senior positions at the Department of Homeland Security and the White House Domestic Policy Council, where she helped craft numerous administrative and legislative initiatives.
While in Washington, Olavarria also held positions at the Immigration Hub; the Center for American Progress; the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency; and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. After serving on the Biden-Harris Transition Team, Olavarria joined this administration as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council for Immigration.
Olavarria holds a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Florida and a juris doctor degree from its law school. She was featured in in the documentary series How Democracy Works Now: Twelve Stories from filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini. Olavarria left the administration in February 2022 and currently lives with her family in Miami, Florida.
Anna Zaibel Blau, Executive Director, International Women's House, Atlanta, GA
Anna Blau is the Executive Director of International Women’s House (IWH), a position she has held since 1998.
Blau, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, came to this country as a small child from war-torn Europe after the second World War. As a result of her own refugee status, she became interested in the plight of others who arrived in the United States to pursue a life free of violence.
For more than 45 years, Blau has served refugees and immigrants. Before coming to IWH, she was the executive director of a vocational and career development agency and assisted displaced refugees who came to the U.S. due to civil wars within their countries or facing religious or political persecution.
Since 1997, under Blau’s leadership, IWH has served more than 12,000 victims of domestic violence – another area which unfortunately Blau knew about first-hand through an earlier abusive dating relationship.
She has spoken nationally on human trafficking and statewide on domestic violence. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her work, including the national Doris Buffet Bryant Award and the highest award given in Georgia for service to victims: The Eagle Award from the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
She obtained her bachelor’s degree from Oglethorpe University and both her master’s and PhD from Georgia State. Blau is married and has one adult son.
Fernando Valenzuela, Former Los Angeles Dodgers Pitcher, Los Angeles, CA
Fernando Valenzuela is one of the most influential figures in Los Angeles Dodgers history. The left-handed pitching sensation from the small town of Etchohuaquila in Navojoa, Mexico, launched “Fernandomania” in 1981 with one of the most dominant starts for a rookie to begin a season in Major League history.
Valenzuela’s dominance re-energized the Dodger fanbase and created a multi-generational, multi-cultural impact that will live on in LA for years to come.
Valenzuela, at age 20, was the surprise 1981 Opening Day starter and shut out the Houston Astros, beginning a run of eight consecutive wins — five by shutout. He is the only pitcher in Major League history to win Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award honors in the same season. Valenzuela also helped lead the Dodgers to a World Series championship in 1981.
Eleven of Valenzuela’s 12 starts at Dodger Stadium in 1981 were sold out and attendance increased by an average of 9,000 fans whenever he pitched in road games. He became a cultural icon in the Latino community in the United States and a hero in his home country.
“El Toro,” the master of the screwball, played 17 Major League seasons, including 11 with the Dodgers from 1980-1990 where he was a six-time All-Star, a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner for his prowess with the bat, and a Gold Glove Award winner.
His 173 victories and 2,074 strikeouts are the most for any Mexican-born Major Leaguer.
In 2003, Valenzuela returned to the Dodgers as a Spanish-language broadcaster. Also in 2003, he was inducted into the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame, which is committed to preserving the history and profound influence that Hispanic players have had on the world of baseball in the United States. He continues to broadcast games for the Dodgers, and in 2022 he had the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium.
Estefanía Rebellón, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Yes We Can World Foundation, Los Angeles, CA
Estefanía Rebellón is the co-founder and Executive Director of Yes We Can World Foundation, a female-led nonprofit organization that believes every child has the right to education and safe spaces regardless of their location, current legal status or economic background. Yes We Can World Foundation created and operates the Yes We Can Mobile Schools program. The program is recognized as the first full-time bilingual education program for migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. This innovative program addresses the academic and emotional needs of refugees, migrants and children in transit. Since July 2019, the Yes We Can Mobile Schools program has provided over 2 million hours of bilingual education and has directly impacted the lives of over 1,000 children. The program serves as a keystone bridge program for refugee and migrant children entering and integrating into the United States.
Rebellón was a refugee from Cali, Colombia, whose life was changed forever at the age of 10 when she and her family were forced to flee their home due to death threats by the Colombian rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Rebellón and her family moved to Miami, FL, where they were granted asylum, later becoming permanent residents, then U.S. citizens after ten years.
Becoming a U.S citizen marked a pivotal moment in Rebellón’s life, as it solidified a permanent future in the United States. A future embraced by American ideals, values and the rights and protections of our freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Rebellón quickly embraced the idea of the American Dream and the responsibility that comes with being a first-generation American.
With this in mind, Rebellón set out to pursue a career as an actress in Hollywood. Rebellón moved to Los Angeles, CA to pursue her already budding career as an actress. Her work includes a role on the television show “Jane the Virgin,” hosting red carpet coverage for multiple Spanish media outlets, and multiple features in national commercials and films. She starred in and codirected the film “On The Other Side,” which focuses on the story of Lupe and her migration journey to the United States. As an up-and-coming actress and humanitarian Rebellón is a champion and advocate for authentic Latin representation in the media and entertainment industry.
Before cofounding and creating Yes We Can World Foundation, Rebellón served as an advocate and activist for the #MeToo Movement and the Women’s March. In 2021, Rebellón was recognized as a “Hero of the Pandemic” by the Los Angeles Times for leading efforts at Yes We Can World Foundation to provide thousands of personal protective equipment kits for migrant children and their families. Rebellón has also been recognized as an Unstoppable Woman by Telemundo/NBC, a Local Hero by Zoomin, and has been nominated for the Alfonso Garcia Robles Humanitarian Award by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México for the defense, promotion, protection, and guarantee of human rights for immigrant people who are in a condition of vulnerability.
Rebellón’s work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, TIME for Kids, and Global Citizen as well as in numerous ethnic media outlets.
Manjusha P. Kulkarni, Executive Director, AAPI Equity Alliance, Los Angeles, CA
Manjusha P. Kulkarni (Manju) is the executive director of the AAPI Equity Alliance (AAPI Equity), a coalition of over 40 community-based organizations that serve and represent the 1.5 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles County. In March of 2020, Manju co-founded Stop AAPI Hate, the nation’s leading aggregator of COVID-19-related hate incidents against AAPIs.
In 2022, Manju was one of five individuals awarded the Racial Equity Award by Bank of America for her service breaking down systemic racial barriers and creating economic opportunities for Black, Latino, Asian American and Native American individuals nationwide. In 2021, Manju was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the 100 most influential individuals and by Bloomberg/Business Week as one of 50 individuals “with the ability to move markets or shape ideas and policies” with the co-founders of Stop AAPI Hate, Cynthia Choi and Russell Jeung. Cynthia, Russell and Manju also were awarded the 2021 Webby Social Movement of the Year.
Manju’s work has been featured in the New York Times, CBS News, and CNN, as well as in numerous ethnic media outlets. Manju is a member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission and the California Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board.
Prior to working at AAPI Equity Alliance, Manju served as the executive director of the South Asian Network, one of the nation’s oldest community-based organizations advancing the health, safety, and well-being of South Asian Americans. While there, she received the White House Champions of Change award from President Barack Obama for her dedication to improving health care access for Asian American communities. Manju holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Duke University and a Juris Doctor degree from Boston University School of Law.
Teresa Romero, President, United Farm Workers, Keene, CA
In 2018, Teresa Romero became the first Latina president of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and first immigrant woman to head a national labor union. She was born into a large family of Spanish and indigenous Zapotec ancestry in Mexico City and grew up in Guadalajara. Her father, who worked for a tortilla machine manufacturer, and her mother, a homemaker, made sure that all six of their children were educated.
Romero came to the United States in her 20s and settled in California’s San Fernando Valley. The 1986 immigration bill signed by then-President Ronald Reagan provided a path for her to become a lawful permanent resident, and later, a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Romero achieved success with her own construction management consulting business and she also managed a law firm that assisted farmworkers and others with immigration and compensation claims. When the 2008 financial crisis occurred, Romero took what was supposed to be a temporary job as an assistant to the president of the UFW. Co-founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, the California-based UFW is the nation’s oldest farmworkers labor union.
During her time with the UFW, the union achieved key victories in California, including the creation of state standards protecting farm workers from extreme heat, and the first state law in the country securing overtime pay after eight hours of work. Romero also successfully fundraised to build a modern, nearly 11,000-square foot facility in Salinas, CA, to better serve union members and educate the public about the UFW’s history and work.
Romero has also made comprehensive immigration reform one of the union’s top priorities, along with addressing a lack of healthcare options that has become acute as farmworkers are critical to maintaining America’s food supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, Romero is leading the UFW’s efforts to advocate for protections for agricultural workers across the country. The union is providing farmworkers with public health information in Spanish and indigenous Indian languages, as well as meals and food boxes and personal protective equipment.
Romero is also leading an effort in California to make it easier for farm workers to vote in union elections, modeling legislation after California’s successful efforts to make it easier for more Californians to participate in local, state, and federal elections.
Romero served on the Biden 2020 transition team along with Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and 13 others.
Note: The following biographies have been provided by the ABC recipients.
Otto Padron, President, Chief Executive Officer of Meruelo Media, Colonel, U.S. Army Reserve, Los Angeles, CA
Otto Padron is president and chief executive officer of Meruelo Media, the fastest growing minority-owned media company in California. Its broadcast portfolio holds some of the most legendary brands in the Los Angeles markets including the oldest independent Spanish language television station in the United States, KWHY-TV 22, along with the world-famous classic rock station KLOS 95.5 FM. Before joining Meruelo Media, Padron was senior vice president of programming for Univision Television Network, the leading Spanish language network in the United States.
At the age of eight years old, Padron and his family left their native Cuba for Madrid, Spain to escape the communist regime. The Padron family moved to the United States when Padron was 11 years old, settling in Miami, FL. Padron was born into a television family. His dad was a broadcast engineer, but Padron preferred to focus more on the creative and executive side of television. To create a different path for himself, at the age of 20, Padron began a military career that afforded him new and bolder opportunities for growth. This path provided Padron the unique opportunity to repay his newly adopted country for the generosity that embraced his refugee family.
He spent four years as a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger in the renowned 75th Ranger Regiment and six years in the Florida National Guard as a Special Forces operator. Today, Padron is a Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve with over 38 years of combined military service. He’s an infantry officer with a distinguished service record in some of the most demanding active-duty units in the Army. Currently he serves as the Deputy Division Commander of the 91st Training Division in Fort Hunter Liggett, CA. For his accomplishments, Padron was selected, recognized, and featured in a U.S. Army “Strong” campaign as one of America’s top Hispanic leaders.
Padron holds a master’s degree from the Army War College in Carlisle, PA. Among his most notable awards, Padron has a Bronze Star Medal, a Ranger tab and the Combat Infantry Badge for valor in combat during the Iraq War. He holds a double Bachelor of Science degree in Broadcast Communications and Economics from the University of Miami FL and is a Worlds Ahead Graduate of Florida International University’s Chapman School of Business with a master’s degree in Business Administration. Otto is married to Mexican actress, Angelica Vale and has four children.
Albert Gamil Eskalis, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Albert Gamil Eskalis joined U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in 2014 and currently serves as the Deputy Chief of Citizenship and Applicant Information Services. Eskalis came to USCIS after a 26-year career as an active-duty Marine. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1988 and attended basic training at Parris Island, S.C. He was later commissioned as a Marine officer and completed his service as a senior communication strategist in the Pentagon. Eskalis served in multiple combat deployments, including Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and numerous tours in the Asia/Pacific region. He is a native of Alexandria, Egypt, where he lived with his parents and sister until they immigrated to the United States in 1979. Eskalis spent his formative years in New York and New Jersey, where his father Gamil and mother Bahgah worked tenaciously to create opportunities for their family and help the communities they now called home. He has been married to Lourdes Eskalis for 30 years, and together they have a son Ryan and twin daughters Rebecca and Ashley.
Major General (Retired) Viet X. Luong, Frisco, TX
Major General (Retired) Viet Luong emigrated from Vietnam with his family to the United States in 1975 as a political refugee, upon the fall of Saigon. He received his commission as a U.S. Army Infantry Officer upon graduating from the University of Southern California in 1987, serving on active duty for the next 34 years until his recent retirement. Throughout his career, Luong had commanded at the rifle platoon to flag level and participated in numerous operational and combat deployments, including OPERATION UPHOLD DEMOCRACY (Haiti), OPERATION JOINT GUARD (Kosovo), OPERATION AMERICAN ASSIST (Hurricane Katrina Relief), OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM 06-08 (Samarra, Iraq), OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM 10-11 (Eastern Afghanistan), and OPERATION FREEDOM'S SENTINEL/NATO RESOLUTE SUPPORT (Kandahar, Afghanistan). Outside of combat, Luong also served in several critically important strategic assignments, including tours as the Deputy Director for Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell, where he assisted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in shaping national policy for the region, and Army G-8 Director of Joint and Integration, where he was responsible for the Army Modernization Strategy and facilitating the Army Requirements Oversight Council (AROC). Most recently, he had served as the Commanding General of U.S. Army Japan, from 2018 to 2021. In this capacity, he effectively operationalized his command and improved U.S. Army force posture in Japan in the face of superpowers competition against near-peer adversaries in the region. He also worked closely with the Japan Ground Self Defense Force to improve interoperability and assist the latter in enhancing its lethality, capabilities and capacity in the defense of Japan. Just as important, Luong promoted a culture of trust, dignity, respect, and inclusivity throughout his command.
Luong holds a Bachelor Degree in Biology from the University of Southern California and a Master of Military Arts and Science from the Army Command and General Staff College. In 2012, he attended Stanford University as a National Security Fellow, where he focused on U.S.- China Policy under the tutelage of Former Secretary of Defense, Dr. William Perry. In addition to his military awards and recognitions, he is a recipient of the 2010 Daughters of the American Revolution's Americanism Award, 2016 Andrew Carnegie Great Immigrant, 2021 Japan Imperial Order of the Rising Sun Gold and Silver. He is married to the former Kimberly Lau of Denver, Colorado. They have three children, daughter, Ashley, and sons, Brandon and Justin.
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.
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.
Sandra Lindsay, Director of Patient Care Services for Critical Care, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Northwell Health
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.
Immaculée Ilibagiza, Author and Motivational Speaker
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.
Sandy Hoa Dang
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.
Dr. Nguyen Dinh Thang
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.