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2024 Chester Gillis Award Recipients Expand Upon Personal and Academic Journeys Overseas Through Research and Service

Mary Nguyen (C’25) and Leah Chen (C’25) are the recipients of the 2024 Chester Gillis Award. 

Established by the College Academic Council (CAC) in 2016, the award recognizes students who embody the values of a liberal arts education in the Jesuit tradition, which its eponym championed during his time as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences from 2008 to 2017. 

This summer, both Chen and Nguyen are abroad, expanding upon their academic and personal interests through real-world research, foreign study and cultural exchange. 

Mary Nguyen (C’25)

Mary Nguyen is spending her summer abroad in Samoa through the School for International Training (SIT). Guided by the pursuit of curiosity, the SIT’s curriculum involves an independent study project focused on social and environmental resilience in the Pacific. 

Three young people stand on a wooden board walk in front of a verdant, green forest.

Mary Nguyen (C’25) with friends in Samoa.

For Nguyen, an environmental biology major and religion, ethics and world affairs minor, the summer has provided a golden opportunity to continue exploring the relationship between her Catholic faith, which prioritizes service to others, and her academic interests.  

“Faith and justice are integrally linked,” Nguyen said. “The global Church plays a significant role in interreligious understanding and social change.”

In Samoa, Nguyen is relying on the skills she’s learned in the classroom to document real-world problems related to environmentalism and social justice.

“Samoa’s relationship to the import and export market inspires my project’s engagement with global floriculture, tropical biodiversity and an indigenous understanding of stewardship,” Nguyen said. “My field of research is supported by interdisciplinary values instilled by a liberal arts education.” 

At Georgetown, Nguyen has built a firm foundation of academic excellence and religious inquiry. In the fall of 2023, Nguyen served as Georgetown’s delegate at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (IFTJ) held in Washington, DC. Hosted by the Ignatian Solidarity Network, the IFTJ is the largest annual Catholic social justice gathering in the United States.

“By pairing education programming with lobbying on issues such as immigration reform and climate justice, IFTJ fosters accountability at both the local and national levels,” Nguyen said. “For the first time, I had the opportunity to actively practice faith-based advocacy.”

On campus, Nguyen has been involved with the Center for Social Justice (CSJ) and Catholic Ministry since her first year on the Hilltop. Nguyen serves as a coordinator for the CSJ’s Homelessness Outreach Meals and Education (HOME) program and as a leader for Catholic Retreats.

“True solidarity requires self-giving love,” Nguyen said. “Gospel teachings underpin my resolve to address the social realities of systemic poverty and oppression. Because responsible land use and ownership are the foundation for a high quality of life, I am dedicated to a future of regenerative agriculture and its impacts on labor and economic parity.” 

“My Georgetown education has encouraged me to serve with unconditional humanity and to uphold the dignity of every individual. In this way, the Jesuit tradition encourages a love that does justice.”

Leah Chen (C’25)

This summer, Leah Chen is conducting research in Thailand on barriers to accessing health care in indigenous and migrant communities. 

Two girls stand in front of a lake with a large college building on the opposite shore befind them.

Leah Chen (C’25) with another student on the main campus of Mae Fah Luang University (MFU) in Chiang Rai, Thailand, where she has been conducting research this summer.

“It’s been a truly gratifying experience to use my positionality and privilege as a Georgetown student to hopefully make a tangible impact in the effort to decrease HPV prevalence in a marginalized population,” Chen said. “I am grateful that Georgetown’s support has enabled me to engage with these communities, further strengthening my commitment towards advocating for health care equity in migrant populations.”

Chen, a physics major and public health minor, arrived on the Hilltop eager to accomplish one thing: do well enough academically to get into a good medical school. Her time at Georgetown, however, has given her the opportunity to reflect on her goals and grow as a person interested in service to others. 

“The College of Arts & Sciences taught me to slow down,” Chen said. “My theology requirement encouraged me to ponder my spirituality and motivation for helping others. A public health class revealed how human and environmental health are linked, flaring a desire to view healthcare from a wider lens than biology.”

In addition to sampling a wide array of classes, a hallmark of a liberal arts education, Chen experienced firsthand the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis, or care for the whole person. Combined with her course of study, Chen found time to more fully investigate herself, her interests and how they intersect with the wider world. 

Cura personalis lifted my blinders, and newfound interests started a chain reaction of new priorities,” Chen said. “My liberal arts education added to my identity — though I am still a physics major on a pre-med track, I am also a social justice activist, a marathon runner and an agnostic sorting between science and the supernatural.”

Those initial courses sparked a journey of personal and academic development that bloomed during a trip to the United States-Mexico border through the Alternative Breaks Program (ABP). 

Though my parents immigrated, the immersive experience taught me that all migrant journeys cannot be generalized,” Chen said. “We pondered the cause of these rifts, tracing them back to white supremacy and U.S. reception of different racial groups. It completely reframed my view on social justice.”

Upon returning to campus, Chen found that the journey she began on her ABP trip continued in the classroom and beyond.  

“In one history class, I chimed in on discussions about destruction of indigenous sacred spaces, referencing my encounters with the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose territory sits at the border,” recalled Chen. 

Outside of the classroom, Chen continued volunteering with the DC Schools Project, where she worked with migrant children on their English and other academic needs. 

“This Jesuit, liberal arts education has given me power in my goals and social action, which will continue to shape my perspective and fuel my fight for migrant justice,” said Chen. “My overarching goal is to become a compassionate doctor who makes patients feel understood. I want to fully appreciate the identities of others, the same way that I have realized them within myself.” 

“I am emboldened by the welcoming atmosphere of the CAS to pursue things like attending Ash Wednesday mass without judgment, getting lost in conversation with professors, conducting public health research abroad and countless invaluable experiences that are still unknown, but undoubtedly awaiting. “

If you would like to nominate a student in the College of Arts & Sciences for next year’s Chester Gillis Award, please contact the College Academic Council at

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