Driven to serve: Jefferson Awards recognize Yale’s unsung heroes
The annual Yale Jefferson Awards honor an undergraduate, a graduate student, and an alumnus who have given back in extraordinary ways. This year, the awards are going to three Yalies whose own life challenges inspired them to make a difference: progressive activist Ady Barkan ’10 J.D.; Rayan Semery-Palumbo YC ’19, who is dedicated to social justice and helping first-generation students succeed; and Ashton Gores YSPH ’18, who founded a nonprofit to help New Haven’s homeless population. The three winners will be honored during the Association of Yale Alumni Assembly and Alumni Fund Convocation on Nov. 9.
“We’re looking for creativity, a refreshing approach to real-world challenges, and how the work they are doing serves a higher purpose,” says Peter Crumlish ’09 DIV, executive director and general secretary of Dwight Hall at Yale, who serves on the selection committee.
Turning tragedy to triumph
Barkan has become a rallying force around progressive causes, particularly healthcare reform. The 34-year-old new dad was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an incurable neurodegenerative disease, a month before the 2016 presidential election. His faculties declined quickly in the ensuing years, and he now has difficulty speaking and is unable to feed himself. Barkan directs two programs at the Center for Popular Democracy, and has used his condition to fuel his activism. He launched the Be a Hero campaign and traveled the country for six weeks this past summer in a wheelchair-accessible RV to encourage others to vote for pro-healthcare candidates. His impassioned essay in The Nation has served as an inspiration for many activists fighting for reform.
Semery-Palumbo overcame a childhood marked by poverty, homelessness, and prejudice to provide support and resources for other first-generation students while at Yale. Following 9-11, Semery-Palumbo's father was the victim of anti-Muslim threats and left the family to return to the Middle East. With little social support, Semery-Palumbo family moved frequently, finally landing in a ramshackle one-story apartment complex in Mesa, Arizona. It was not until he was accepted at Yale and began to work for social justice with organizations like Bronx Defenders, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, says Semery-Palumbo, that he began to understand just how poverty-stricken his family was. “Every place I travel, I see people experiencing things that are similar to my experience,” he says. “It just manifests in different ways. In the U.S., poverty leads to high prison and homicide rates; in other countries, to isolation and starvation.” He co-chaired the first 1vyG conference at Yale, which brought in 500 attendees, including 300 from more than 19 universities, and worked with first-generation Yale alumni to provide internship and mentoring opportunities. He also led student efforts for a Domestic Service Award with the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid, to provide resources for low-income students to travel and study domestically as they do internationally. The new summer fellowship award was announced by Yale College Dean Marvin Chun last year.
When Gores was a junior at the Yale School of Public Health, she lost both her father and brother to heart disease just six months apart. She had already been focused on public health, particularly addiction recovery, and says the life-altering experience led her to double down on her efforts. Gores worked closely with the New Haven’s homeless population and decided to focus on one problem where she thought she could make an impact — the need for foot hygiene and clean socks and shoes. She called her organization PAWS (Poverty Alleviation through Washing Soles) and rallied Yale undergraduates to join her effort in collecting shoes, socks, gel inserts, nail clippers, and other items and in coordinating foot-washing events once a month at St. Paul and St. James Episcopal Church in New Haven. “Going into healthcare, I wanted to work with underserved populations,” Gores said. “I want to give back and be an equalizer.”
The Yale call to service
The national Jefferson Awards were designed as a “Nobel Prize for public service,” to shine a light on inspiring stories of Americans making a difference. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis cofounded the Jefferson Awards Foundation in 1972 with two Yale alumni: former Ohio Representative and Senator Robert Taft Jr. ’39 B.A. and Sam Beard ’61 B.A., who has founded and chaired public nonprofit initiatives with seven U.S. presidents, from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. The Yale Jefferson Awards, launched in 2012, have the same mission: to cast a spotlight on members of the university community who embody Yale’s commitment to public service.
“We realized that at the institutional level, we needed an award that recognized sustained, impactful service,” says Stephen Blum ’74 B.A., senior director for strategic initiatives at the AYA.
Yale students and alumni are engaged with service almost as a matter of course, with activities ranging from volunteering in New Haven through Dwight Hall, to participating in worldwide actions during Yale Day of Service, to joining humanitarian efforts abroad, to founding their own nonprofits. In fact, on Nov. 2 and 3, just a few days before Yale honors the Jefferson Award recipients, the AYA’s Careers, Life, and Yale program will bring together more than 100 alumni and students for “Skills for Changemakers: Careers to Improve the World” (students and alumni can register to attend here).
“I think of service as being of a higher order than work,” says Crumlish. “What’s central to Yale identity is that you’re expected to use your enormous advantage to serve the greater good. When students choose Yale, they are choosing to be part of a tradition of something bigger.”
The Jefferson Award winners will be honored Nov. 9, during the Association of Yale Alumni Assembly and Alumni Fund Convocation. They will take part in a Fireside Chat on Nov. 9 at 3:30 p.m. in the Nick Chapel Theater at Trumbull College, 241 Elm St.. The chat is open to all students and alumni. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.