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Gallery of Trailblazers

Meet some University of Maryland Trailblazers

The people in this gallery are past and present leaders, advocates, activists and achievers from a range of fields and with a range of accomplishments. Learn more about how people apply their University of Maryland educational experience to enact real world change.

April is APIDA Heritage Month and SWANA Heritage Month

This month we are highlighting our APIDA (Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi-American) and SWANA (Southwest Asian, Northern African) communities by moving some of those trailblazers to the top!

Jeong Kim Headshot
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Dr. Jeong H. Kim (Ph.D. '91)

began as a South Korean immigrant with few resources and worked his way up to become a tech industry giant with the first Asian-named building on campus and a place on the Forbes list of richest Americans.

Learn more about Dr. Jeong Kim

Neela Vaswani headshot
image credit: ctw/profile.php?profile_id=1019

Dr. Neela Vaswani (Ph.D. '06)

is an award-winning author and Grammy-winning audiobook narrator, and an education activist in the U.S. and India who utilizes the power of storytelling to promote literacy, activism and connection.

Learn more about Dr. Neela Vaswani

Florent Groberg headshot in uniform
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Captain Florent Groberg (B.A. '06, M.S. '17)

has dedicated himself to the cause of military veteran mental health after being injured in combat in 2012. In 2015 Groberg was the first foreign-born Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War.

Learn more about Cpt. Florent Groberg

M Pease Headshot
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M Pease (B.A. '22, current doctoral student)

is a social justice advocate whose work seeks to bridge science with advocacy and activism efforts that tangibly improve conditions for marginalized communities in the pursuit of social justice, equity, decolonization, and liberation.

Learn more about M Pease

Oula Alrifai headshot
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Oula Alrifai (B.A. '11)

focuses on peace and development in the Middle East, with a special emphasis on Syria. As a current AVP for the National Immigration Forum, Alrifai works with national security and law enforcement leaders to prioritize immigration reform.

Learn More about Oula Alrifai

Aya Soffer Headshot
image credit: 2021/06/ harnessing-power-ai-one-project-time

Dr. Aya Soffer (M.S. '92, Ph.D. '95)

has been one of the world’s leading experts on Artificial Intelligence (AI) for 30 years. She is now responsible for the global AI research strategy for IBM, as well as their research lab in Haifa, Israel.

Learn more about Dr. Aya Soffer

Shige Sakurai headshot
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Shige Sakurai (faculty/staff '10-'22)

blazes trails for non-binary people. They received the first ever X gender marker on their driver’s license in 2017, authored the website and founded International Pronouns Day.

Learn more about Shige Sakurai

Yousef Munayyer headshot

Dr. Yousef Munayyer (M.A. ‘08, Ph.D. ‘15)

is a Palestinian-American writer and political analyst who has made and continues to make significant contributions to the discourse on Palestine, Israel, and the broader Middle East.

Learn more about Yousef Munayyer

Chao Wu headshot
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Dr. Chao Wu (Ph.D. '09)

is a senior data scientist, an engineer, and a Chinese-American immigrant who has dedicated his life to public service and improving his local community. He currently serves as a Maryland State Delegate for District 9A.

Learn more about Dr. Chao Wu

Dr. Jeanette Epps (M.S. '94, Ph.D. '00)

is currently living on the International Space Station (ISS) and is the second Black woman to do so. Epps has persevered through an extended delay in her spaceflight opportunity and finally took off for a 6-month rotation on the ISS as part of SpaceX Crew-8 on March 3, 2024.

Learn more about Dr. Jeanette Epps about Dr. Jeanette Epps

See Epps talking to UMD from the ISS on March 6, 2024:

Jeanette Epps in pilot's helmet
image credit: celebrating-black-engineers-jeanette-epps
Riley Roshong Headshot
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Riley Grace Roshong, Esq (JD/MPP '23)

is changing the way politics engages with young voters by taking activism, campaigning, and policy analysis to social media. She was central to the passing of the Trans Health Equity Act in Maryland in 2023.

Learn more about Riley Roshong

Vashti McKenzie headshot
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Reverend Vashti McKenzie (B.A. '78)

is a preacher, journalist, author and activist blazing the trail for women of faith as the first woman leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Learn more

black and white image of Liz Lerman with two dancers standing behind her, facing away from the camera with arms raised
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Liz Lerman (B.A. '70)

is a pioneer in dance, choreography, and education whose work is grounded in the belief that dance is truly for everybody, constantly considering accessibility and inclusion. She developed the world-renowned Critical Response Process (CRP).

Learn more

Chloe Schwenke headshot
image credit: 2018/05/04/chloe-schwenke-memoir/

Dr. Chloe Schwenke (Ph.D. '02)

is a human rights scholar and activist, researcher, author and educator. She led the development of the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender Based Violence Globally.

Learn more about Dr. Chloe Schwenke

Gayle King, black woman, rubbing Testudo's name in front of the McKeldin library
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Gayle King (B.A. '76)

is one of the best broadcast interviewers of all time, a co-anchor of CBS This Morning and editor-at-large for O: The Oprah Magazine. King was in the Times 100 Most Influential People in 2019.

Learn more about Gayle King

black and white photo of Evelyn Pasteur Valentine
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Dr. Evelyn Pasteur Valentine (M.A. '67, Ph.D. '86)

was a giant in the Baltimore city public education system from 1962-1990, receiving the Maryland’s Teacher of the Year award and the University of Maryland College Park Alumni Association’s Ralph J. Tyser Medallion.

Learn More about Dr. Evelyn Valentine

Aryan Rodriguez Bocquet headshot
image credit: files/2016/08/1st-Conference-Booklet.pdf

Aryan Rodriguez Bocquet (B.A. '00)

was appointed the first director of language access for the Washington, D.C. Office of Human Rights at the age of 26 and now serves as Senior Managing Director for the educational advocacy group the Flamboyan Foundation.

Learn More about Aryan Bocquet

Maria Otero Headshot
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Maria Otero (M.A. '74)

is a world leader in the world of global microfinance and financial inclusion. A Bolivian immigrant, Otero is the first Latina Under Secretary of U.S.

Learn More about Maria Otero

Dominique Dawes Headshot
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Dominique Dawes (B.A. '02)

was the first African American to make the national gymnastics team, the first African American to win an individual Olympic medal in women’s gymnastics, and a member of the first U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team in history to win gold.

Learn More about Dominique Dawes

Aziza Baccouche headshot
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Dr. Zohra Aziza Baccouche (Ph.D. '02)

was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics in the state of Maryland and the first blind on-air correspondent for both CNN and PBS.

Learn More about Dr. Z Baccouche

Bernice Sandler headshot
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Dr. Bernice Resnick Sandler (Ed.D. '69)

is known as the “Godmother of Title IX” for her lifetime of work on equity for women in education.

Learn More about Dr. Sandler

Aisha Braveboy headshot
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Honorable Aisha N. Braveboy (B.A. '97)

is the current State's Attorney for Prince George's County, MD and a staunch advocate for policies that improve equity and dignity for marginalized people in her community.

Learn more about Hon. Aisha Braveboy

Marilee Lindemann headshot
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Dr. Marilee Lindemann (faculty/staff '92-present)

was the inaugural director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Program (2002-2013), pushing for the importance of queer studies and bringing awareness to the LGBTQ+ community.

Learn more about Dr. Marilee Lindemann

Aracely Quispe in doctoral regalia
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Dr. Irma Aracely Quispe Neira (M.S. '21)

went from growing up in a Peruvian town with no electricity to becoming the first Latin American to command three successful NASA missions.

Learn more about Dr. Aracely Quispe

Elissa Washuta headshot
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Elissa Washuta (B.A. '07)

is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and an award-winning nonfiction author some regard as one of the best living essayists today. Her deeply personal work explores her experiences with mental health challenges, sexual violence, her native identity, and more.

Learn More about Elissa Washuta

Galo President painted portrait
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President Galo Plaza Lasso (B.A. '29)

worked tirelessly toward peace in Latin America and around the world, as well as the education and technological modernization of Ecuador. Plaza is regarded as one of the best political leaders in Ecuadorian history.

Learn more about Pres. Galo Plaza

Ashley Minner Headshot
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Dr. Ashley Minner (Ph.D. '20)

uses art and storytelling to share the stories of indigenous peoples in the United States. She works alongside tribal elders to map, reconstruct and archive the rich but invisible history of the Lumbee Indian Community in East Baltimore, MD.

Learn more about Dr. Ashley Minner

Aaron Kaufman smiles in a Maryland flag tie
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Aaron Kaufman

is the first member of the Maryland General Assembly with a physical disability and a constant advocate for people with disabilities, as well as for equity issues in healthcare, education, and other areas. Kaufman was named Rookie Delegate of the Session in 2023.

Learn more about Aaron Kaufman

D'Arcee Charington Neal headshot
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Dr. D'Arcee Charington Neal (M.A. '19)

is an “award-winning queer disability activist, theorist, and consultant,” using storytelling to advocate for all marginalized communities’ rights, especially at the intersections of race, sexuality and ability.

Learn more about Dr. D'Arcee Neal

Josh Schneider dressed in hockey uniform
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Josh Schneider (B.A. '04)

is a national advocate for blind hockey, #17 on the USA Blind Hockey Team, and the Chief Operating Officer of The Dented Puck, a grassroots organization striving to expand blind hockey across the world.

Learn more about Josh Schneider

Renaldo Nehemiah wearing a US olympic team patch with a flag over one shoulder, looking down
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Renaldo "Skeets" Nehemiah (B.A. '81)

set world records for multiple distances of hurdles, despite missing out on an Olympic run due to a U.S. boycott of the Games during the Cold War. He is also a Super Bowl Championship winner with the San Francisco 49ers (1982-1985).

Learn more about Skeets Nehemiah

Luke Jensen Headshot
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Dr. Luke Jensen (faculty/staff '94-'21)

started as associate director of a music research center, and then founded the President’s Commission on LGBT Issues and what is now the LGBTQ+ Equity Center.

Learn more about Dr. Luke Jensen

Manning Marable headshot
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Dr. Manning Marable (Ph.D. '76)

was a renowned political science and history scholar who bridged scholarship and activism. Marable's most famous books are How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983) and his revisionist biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011).

Learn more about Dr. Manning Marable

Jack Minker Headshot
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Dr. Jack Minker (faculty '67-'21)

founded the UMD Department of Computer Science and was committed to shedding light on the human rights violations against scientists around the world.

Learn more about Dr. Jack Minker

Gallery of Trailblazers Full Biographies