May 20, 2022

Each year, HKS honors several outstanding alumni and one alumni network for exceptional public service and significant contributions to the Kennedy School and to local, national, and global communities. We are excited to announce this year’s recipients and hope you will watch this brief video highlighting their achievements. 

The recipients are: 

  • Alumni Public Service Award | Marina LeGree MC/MPA 2014  
  • Emerging Global Leader Award | María Soledad Rueda García MC/MPA 2019 
  • Julius E. Babbitt Memorial Alumni Volunteer Award | Robert Manson MPA 2004
  • Alumni Network Engagement Award | Harvard Kennedy School Women's Network
  • HKS Fund Outstanding Alumni Award | Amelita Armit MC/MPA 1979 and Hamissou Samari MPP 2012
  • Digital Innovation Award | Vilas Dhar MC/MPA 2016 

Alumni Public Service Award | Marina LeGree MC/MPA 2014

A woman with long blonde, wavy hair stands in a field with her hands on her hips.In 2021, Marina LeGree MC/MPA 2014 led the effort to evacuate more than 100 people from Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban. The regime change prompted extraordinary changes at Ascend, the NGO founded by Marina that uses mountaineering and athletics to empower young women with self-confidence and leadership skills.   

Under the restored Taliban regime, Marina’s staff and participants were in peril. Marina led her team to evacuate these individuals and, in some cases, their families. The effort was immense, enlisting help from around the world, including Marina’s friends in the HKS alumni network. Marina coordinated efforts among the Harvard community and helped to secure visas from countries including Chile, the United States, Ireland, Poland, Germany, Kazakhstan, and Denmark. The effort had helped secure safe passage for 135 people.     

Working to relocate them, Marina says, “has been the dead opposite of everything I’ve ever stood for in Afghanistan: strengthen communities; create change. I never wanted to be a pipeline for people to leave.”  

Marina’s relationship with Afghanistan began after she earned her master’s in international affairs from George Washington University. Working first for the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, then for the German aid agency GIZ, Marina was stationed in Faizabad, the provincial capital and largest city in the remote, mountainous northern province of Badakhshan.  

“I was living like Afghans live, which for a woman means you can’t go outside, and which means you don’t get to move physically,” she says. “You cannot move as a woman—everyone will stare at you. You can’t go outside without judgmental eyes on you, and it’s suffocating. That part of the experience was awful.”  

She later worked for NATO and the U.S. government, providing support to troops and civilian personnel doing stabilization work in local communities as part of the anti-insurgency effort.  During that period, she designed a methodology for analyzing the stability of a given area or region, which was approved by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the government of Afghanistan as a national stabilization programming standard. As her work and the occupation wore on, she was also increasingly disheartened by the level of corruption she observed in both the Afghan government and the U.S. occupation effort.  

Seeking a way to reset her career she attended HKS where she developed the idea for Ascend.   

“I really needed that new peer group,” LeGree says. “I wanted to surround myself with people who had done different things and who inspired me and who would have different viewpoints, and that’s what I got. I had an incredible class full of people who are friends for life and the people who really helped me start Ascend.”  

Since launching in 2015, 20–30 girls in Afghanistan participated and graduated annually from Ascend. In 2018, Hanifa Yousoufi, an Ascend team member, became the first Afghan woman to climb the country’s highest peak, Noshaq, which rises 24,580 feet above the Wakhan Corridor in the Hindu Kush mountain range. Ascend grew tremendously in 2021 and was able to accept 75 girls and open the first sports center for women in Kabul.  

While the Afghanistan program is on hold, Marina says, “We’re keeping our foothold there because the Taliban haven’t really said much about who’s going to be allowed to do what. We can do female-only instruction in the space that we have, and we can also deliver instruction via cell phones—which we’ve gotten pretty good at during COVID anyway.” The mountaineering program will expand to one or two new countries; site selection is underway at this time.  

This award recognizes alumni who have significantly improved the human condition at the local, state/provincial, national, or international levels. Recipients will have made a substantial difference for people, organizations, or governments through a single influential act or a series of steps that produced positive societal change.

Emerging Global Leader Award | María Soledad Rueda García MC/MPA 2019

A woman with shoulder-length, brown, curly hairMaría Soledad Rueda García is the newly appointed International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Operations Coordinator for the Near and Middle East, covering Israel, Palestinian territories, and Iraq. Most recently, she represented and led the ICRC’s activities in Ethiopia as Head of Operations from 2020 to 2021, during one of the most challenging humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa. Serving during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray Region, Sole, as she is known by her friends, had packed for a three-day visit when she was first immersed in the heart of the crisis. Rather than flee, she stayed to provide safety for those who were in extreme danger by bringing an international presence and ensuring the operation of the ICRC in Tigray was executed in the midst of an armed conflict. 

“In times of war,” Sole says, “all constructed barriers fall, and we find at the core our shared humanity. I strive to protect it, infusing humanity in situations where only horrors seem possible.” 

Born and raised in San Gil, Colombia, Sole has instilled her career with lessons she learned from her mother, a physician, leader of the local orphanage, and head of household. “I grew up watching my mother work tirelessly, teaching my two sisters and me to live life to the fullest and with constant gratitude,” she says.  

As a professional, Sole has been deeply involved with the world’s most difficult crises. She worked as COVID-19 coordinator in Goma, in the eastern Congo;  helped to fight the spread of Ebola in Liberia; negotiated agreements between Israeli and Palestinian authorities on behalf of the population in Gaza; and negotiated and achieved better conditions at prisons and labor camps in Myanmar. 

“Leading teams to find their own greatness through service is one of my most rewarding satisfactions,” Sole says. 

Her leadership skills have saved lives, including overseeing a refugee camp of more than 15,000 refugees from Somalia who were fleeing chronic violence and insecurity along with the worst drought in decades, and managing the influx of thousands of refugees along the border of South Sudan in Ethiopia. “Every moment close to populations bound by violence humbled me and further proved that my path should be to serve and live a life driven by integrity, inspiration, and light,” Sole says. 

Despite the dreadful brutality that Sole has witnessed, she remains positive and an inspiration to her classmates. They remark on her ability to stay in touch regardless of her whereabouts and the conflict around her. She checks-in, asks where she can help despite her workload, and remains upbeat, they say. Among her best qualities, one alum shared, is Sole’s incredible capacity for empathy and the ability to see both sides of a conflict to better arrive at a resolution.  

“I have met the most courageous people in places ravaged by violence and conflict,” she says. “They have taught me the greatest lesson: Life is beautifully obstinate and inherently comes with hope.” 

“Many people worldwide have heeded the call to focus their energy and passion on being of help to others in their time of direst need, when circumstances make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to help themselves,” adds Sole. “Being a voice and a spark of hope for those that the violence and conflict have silenced is the most humbling privilege. It is to my peers and the population we have the honor to serve that I dedicate this award.” 

This award recognizes alumni under the age of 40 who have stood out as leaders or catalysts for change or as people making a meaningful difference to individuals, organizations, or governments. Recipients exemplify the Kennedy School’s goal of improving public policy and public leadership in the United States and around the world through research, teaching, and direct engagement with policymakers and public leaders at all levels and across all sectors.

Julius E. Babbitt Memorial Alumni Volunteer Award | Robert Manson MPA 2004

A man with short brown hair in a suit smiles at the cameraRobert Manson MPA 2004 is committed to building relationships and engaging with Harvard and connecting HKS alumni worldwide. As a leader among HKS alumni, Bob, as he is known, gives freely of his time with such an abundance it is easy to believe that he must be two people working across Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Bob has served not only as president of the Harvard Club of Ireland for four years, but also as a Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) regional director for Europe overseeing six countries for three years, and was most recently elected to the executive committee of the HAA as a member-at-large.

Bob’s focus on public service was recently on display at the HAA Alumni Leadership Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was asked to host a session on public leadership. He ultimately presented three case studies featuring the Harvard Club of Ireland, the Harvard Club of Seattle, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education to encourage other clubs to adopt initiatives with a public service focus that could have a positive impact in their local communities.  

This recent example of encouraging participation among HKS alumni is the latest in a history of making change since graduating in 2004. Just six years ago, Bob founded the Harvard Club of Ireland Nonprofit Fellowship, which was modeled on a program from the Harvard Club of Australia, to select leaders of nonprofits in Ireland and send them on an executive education program at Harvard Business School called “Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management.” Since its inception, seven fellowships have been awarded and its success has garnered attention from other Harvard clubs in Europe.  

While engaging alumni and students is a passion, Bob also seeks out future public leaders who would benefit from a Kennedy School education. To do so, Bob co-founded the Harvard Club of Ireland Outreach Program, adopted from the Harvard Club of the U.K., to encourage applicants to HKS from state schools in Ireland. 

“I am incredibly honored to be the recipient of this year’s award which is named in memory of a young man who dedicated his short life to public service,” Bob says. “I am fond of saying that volunteerism and public service is not what I do; it is who I am.” 

In addition to his volunteerism with Harvard and the Kennedy School, Bob also continues to give back to his community. He is a volunteer with the Special Olympics Ireland (Basketball and Golf Programs) and a serial fundraiser for Crumlin Children's Hospital, Downs Syndrome Ireland, and St Raphael's Special School through marathon and ultra-marathon running (60 marathons and ultra-marathons completed). His commitment to leading change within his community, locally and at HKS, continues to inspire his classmates and other alumni groups around the world, proving that leading by example can enlist multitudes to create change. 

“This award is dedicated to my classmate Captain Oleh Khalayim MPA/ID 2004,” adds Bob. “Two months ago, Oleh was working as a portfolio officer at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Today he is serving in the armed forces of Ukraine.” 

This award recognizes alumni who have made exceptional contributions to the Kennedy School community by volunteering their time, creativity, and energy and by advancing the spirit of volunteerism and service to the School. It honors the memory of Julius Babbitt MC/MPA 2001, a member of the Kennedy School Alumni Board of Directors who served both as director of the School’s alumni programs and chair of the Kennedy School New England Alumni Network.  

Alumni Network Engagement Award | Harvard Kennedy School Women's Network

A group of women at a conference table pose for a photoIn 2021, the Harvard Kennedy School Women’s Network (HKSWN) reached nearly 3,000 alumnae through more than a dozen events. The Network’s success relies on its growing footprint around the globe and it now celebrates 50 city chapters with a mission to connect, support, and amplify the efforts of HKS women and gender-nonconforming individuals in authentic, meaningful, and powerful ways. This includes activities such as welcoming new HKS alumnae, meeting with prospective students, and planning informal group gatherings. 

“Around the world, our chapters are strengthening the community through meaningful interactions and topic-based discussions—much like we had while we were students at HKS,” says HKSWN co-chair Theodora Skeadas MPP 2016. “For example, the Boston chapter organized successive small group dinners, and our London chapter has been particularly busy, organizing several different panel discussions to engage alumnae on a variety of topics.” 

The global footprint now includes many U.S. cities such as Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Los Angeles, NYC, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington DC; and international networks in Bangalore, Beijing, Bogota, Brussels, Cairo, Copenhagen (Scandinavia), Delhi, Guatemala City (Central America), Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Israel, Johannesburg, Lausanne, London, Madrid, Mexico City, Manila, Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris, Rabat, Seoul, and Singapore. 

“The growth of the HKS Women's Network to 50-plus chapters and 75-plus chapter leads globally has empowered alumnae to connect with others in their cities and regions around the world, and in doing so, fostered relationship-building and impact globally,” Theodora says. 

HKSWN events have included: the HKSWN mentorship program, gender parity in the maritime sector, a time management workshop, financial literacy for women series, and women and artificial intelligence series. 

“We are grateful to receive this year's Network Engagement Award and so proud to be a part of such an incredible group of HKS alumnae,” says co-chair Andrea Blinkhorn MPP 2016. “The HKS Women’s Network was founded with the mission to connect, amplify and support the work of HKS alumnae all around the world and over the past few years, we’ve been able to strengthen our bond with one another as members and help each other through tough challenges. We’re looking forward to continuing to grow and provide meaningful opportunities for alum to connect with each other.” 

This award recognizes HKS alumni networks that have significantly strengthened the alumni community and advanced the networks’ ties with the School.

HKS Fund Outstanding Alumni Award | Amelita Armit MC/MPA 1979 and Hamissou Samari MPP 2012

This year the HKS Fund Outstanding Alumni Award will be shared between two individuals who continue to donate to HKS while serving populations in need: Amelita Armit MC/MPA 1979 and Hamissou Samari MPP 2012.   

A woman with short, dark hairAmelita is a retired public service professional actively engaged in community volunteer work. She worked both with the Alberta provincial government and the Canadian federal government for over 25 years in various senior positions in industry and commerce, intergovernmental affairs, human resources management, including assistant deputy minister of health and social services and vice president of the Public Service Commission. To date, Amelita is the only Filipino who has achieved the rank of assistant deputy minister in the Canadian public service. She concluded her public service career as president and CEO of the Parliamentary Centre, a non-governmental organization committed to strengthening parliamentary democracy and good governance practices around the globe. 

A man with a closely shaven head wearing a suitHamissou is a senior program officer at the Division of Monitoring and Evaluation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. government foreign assistance and international development agency based in Washington. Hamissou is also the co-founder of LiftTogo, a nonprofit organization with the twofold mission of helping African immigrants in the United States to achieve their higher education goals, while raising funds to provide material support to school-age kids from low-income, hard-to-reach parts of his native Togo.  

Amelita, who has donated to HKS for over 30 years, and Hamissou, who has given every year since graduating, share a similar interest in giving back to HKS and ensuring that incoming students and School programs have the funding they need to succeed. “My donations are my way of saying ‘thank you’ and paying it forward, so that current and future students of lower-income backgrounds could be afforded a chance to achieve their dreams,” Hamissou says. 

“I believe in what the Kennedy School stands for—the importance of public service, and public policy leadership in our democratic society,” Amelita says. “Enabling or ensuring that this work continues, especially in these complex and challenging times is essential. Every contribution counts, big and small —time, money, resources, etc.” 

Beyond his reasons for giving, Hamissou also focuses his generosity on programs he feels can scale up to meet the challenges of tomorrow. 

“I make a living trying to understand how and why some development projects succeed or fail in comparison to others,” he says. “One of the things that I’ve learned is that the size of the investment is very important. But equally important is the capacity of the project implementer to manage it well enough to achieve the greatest impact, regardless of the size of the grant. Over the years, HKS has established an outstanding track record of making sure that the funds go to areas of greatest need and true potential.” 

Giving back to HKS to generate learning opportunities for public leaders is not just an aspiration but something Amelita experienced during her time at the Kennedy School. “To be open to ideas, to other points of view—to look at the whole and not just the parts. In today’s language, the terms are ‘healthy dialogue,’ ‘inclusivity,’ ‘collaboration’—these were all part of my learning experience in the Kennedy School—my classmates came from different professions, different countries, different levels of government, and I benefitted from all the varying perspectives they brought to the School,” Amelita says. 

Together, Amelita and Hamissou are helping the Kennedy School to improve public policy and leadership so people can live in societies that are more safe, free, just, and sustainably prosperous. They have experienced this mission firsthand and by giving back they create change for the next class of public leaders. 

This award recognizes alumni who have demonstrated a long-term commitment to the Kennedy School community through their dedicated annual support of any amount. The winners, who embody the power of alumni participation and philanthropy, show that gifts of all amounts can have a tremendous impact on students, faculty, and alumni. Individuals are nominated and selected by members of the HKS Fund’s Executive Council. 

Digital Innovation Award | Vilas Dhar MC/MPA 2016

A man with salt and pepper hair and a beard in a suitVilas Dhar MC/MPA 2016 is described by classmates as visionary, tireless, inspirational, and passionate. As president of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a 21st century philanthropy advancing artificial intelligence and data solutions to create a thriving, equitable, and sustainable future for all, Vilas advocates for technologies and policies that transform social and economic opportunities to create equity. 

“My vision of our brighter future is one in which technology amplifies the very best of humanity, our creativity, ingenuity, curiosity, kindness, and generosity,” Vilas says. 

Vilas has championed a new framework for digital exposure, literacy, and mastery that grounds the creation and use of 21st-century technologies in principles of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA). Through work with organizations such as The Hidden Genius Project, Per Scholas and Education Design Lab, Vilas supports the creation of new participatory mechanisms to bring traditionally underrepresented voices into policy and technological decision-making. 

“It is essential we put a fine point on the idea that technology can be a democratizing force—but to do so, we require a purposeful will,” Vilas says. “To achieve that potential, we need to come together with a shared intention to ensure that the technologies being built are the ones that actually serve all of us. AI can drive transformative change to address our most pressing global challenges—but will require cross-sector dialogue and collaboration.” 

Vilas is also a leading voice for equity and democratization of artificial intelligence. At the foundation he envisions a future where technology amplifies the best aspects of humanity rather than using it to create divisions and seed hatred. Technology, according to Vilas, should help to harness the world’s creativity, kindness, and generosity.  

“The challenge we face today is to build democratic, inclusive public discourse—one that involves technologists, ethicists, everyday users—to build the AI-enabled future that humanity deserves,” he says. 

Prior to joining the foundation, Vilas founded and led a nonprofit incubator and a sustainable public interest law firm. At HKS, Vilas had a role in leading contributions in the academic study of technology for good as the Gleitsman Fellow on Social Change and was the Practitioner Resident on Artificial Intelligence at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy. 
“At the Kennedy School, I learned that creating a better world requires us all to make decisions—from policy makers to technology leaders to each of us as consumers, stakeholders, and advocates for justice and equity,” Vilas says. “I learned how to make better decisions—and how to support and lift up those who provide diverse, creative, and empathetic insights. I’m delighted to receive this award from the Harvard Kennedy School for my work to center human lives and interests at the center of our technological future.” 

As an advocate for using technology for social change, Vilas shares his views as widely as possible, attending international forums, providing interviews to news outlets, writing academic papers, and attending speaking engagements. His passion for raising awareness is fueled by a commitment to service and aiding humankind during a time of technological advancement. Most recently Vilas was honored by the World Economic Forum and named a Young Global Leader for his work. 

While doing his best to inform and steer the conversation on technology and policy he is also incredibly hands-on and has been known to spend his days quickly moving between projects such as working with villagers in India to adopt mobile applications to plan a more profitable harvest, with social activists in Africa using drones and citizen experiences to help track climate change across the continent, and with librarians in small towns who are assisting middle-school students to complete their education amid a pandemic. 

“The 21st century opportunity is at the intersection of stakeholder engagement, responsible innovation, and a vision of collaboration to address shared global challenges,” he says. 

This award recognizes alumni who have clearly defined a problem and provided a digital or technological solution that includes metrics to measure impact. Their digital solutions are sustainable and have the potential to scale. While solutions can be early prototypes, they must have been tested with the end-user community.