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Vietnamese Student Named UMass Boston JFK Award Winner

Winner Is also Recipient of Prestigious Biomedical Research Fellowship

Boston, MA (Vocus) May 12, 2010 -- University of Massachusetts Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley today announced that Thao Xuan Do, a Vietnamese immigrant whose goal is to devote her life to fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, has been chosen as the recipient of the 2010 John F. Kennedy Award for Academic Excellence.

Do, a 26-year-old chemistry major from Norwood, immigrated to America from Vietnam in 2004 with her mother, unable to speak any English. Now, just six years later, she will address a crowd of thousands of fellow graduates, families, and friends gathered at UMass Boston’s 42nd Commencement Ceremony on June 4 as she accepts the highest UMass Boston award an undergraduate can receive.

“When choosing the winner of the John F. Kennedy Award, we look at not only academics and service, but students’ overall contributions as ‘citizens’ of this university and of the world,” said Chancellor J. Keith Motley. “That is why I’m so pleased to honor Thao with this award: While her achievements so far have been impressive and many, she looks at this as just the beginning. It is her dreams that are truly inspiring.”

Do had been in America for just two years when she began her undergraduate degree at UMass Boston in 2006, still unsure of what she would be able to accomplish in her new home. She credits her time at UMass Boston with helping her to build a strong foundation and challenging her to strive for success, no matter what the circumstances.

“One of my first professors told me that in order to learn something, you need to step out of your comfort zone,” Do said. “I had thought coming to America as a non-native speaker, I was leaving my dreams of becoming a leader behind. ... Now it seems like everything is possible. I feel like I can do it all.”

Do plans on becoming a doctor and hopes to eventually be a leader in her field, finding solutions to national and global health issues like health disparity and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Growing up just outside of Saigon, Vietnam, she witnessed HIV and AIDS take hold of many young people who had turned to drugs and prostitution in a neighborhood where the fight for food and survival was more important than education.

Her determination to fight HIV and AIDS was further cultivated during a trip to Cape Town, South Africa with the University Honors Program in January. Do again saw firsthand the social, economic, and political aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic there, volunteering in local clinics.

“I had made a commitment to devote all my life, my skill, and talent to the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” Do said. “The South Africa trip has provided an opportunity for me to look deeply into my soul and helped me reveal and confirm my passion in life.”

When Do graduates this spring, she will head to Bethesda, Maryland to work side by side with some of the world’s leading scientists as one of just 16 finalists selected from 600 applicants nationwide to receive the prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH) Academy fellowship. She will spend a year engaged in biomedical research at NIH, working toward the elimination of domestic health disparities. Then she plans to attend medical school.

Do’s professors say she will make an excellent doctor and researcher.

“At our very first meeting, I sensed in Thao not just a sharp mind but a relentlessly questing intellect,” said Rajini Srikanth, director of the University Honors Program at UMass Boston. “She is not satisfied with what she knows and is always interrogating how she knows what she knows.”

While at UMass Boston Do has also interned with the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She takes time out of her schedule to teach Vietnamese to American--born Vietnamese children and organizes cultural events at a Vietnamese Community Center in Dorchester.

“As a new immigrant to this country, Thao is drawn to teaching the value of Vietnamese culture to second-generation Vietnamese Americans,” wrote Assistant Professor of Chemistry Deyang Qu, who is Do’s research advisor. “Thao has become a shining star at UMass Boston.”

The undergraduate JFK Award is given to one student who demonstrates an excellent academic record, has a commitment to service, and acts as a good citizen of the university and the world. Each year, the award recipient receives a $1,000 honorarium, a bust of John F. Kennedy, and the opportunity to speak at their commencement ceremony. Do is the 33rd UMass Boston JFK winner.

About the University of Massachusetts Boston:
With a growing reputation for innovative research addressing complex issues, the University of Massachusetts Boston, metropolitan Boston’s only public university, offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s seven colleges and graduate schools serve nearly 15,000 students while engaging local, national, and international constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service activities. To learn more about UMass Boston, visit


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