A week to the day after starting her new role as Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’s chief housing and homelessness officer, UCLA alumna Lourdes Castro Ramirez traveled to campus for an occasion of utmost importance to the public servant of 30 years.

To say the double Bruin had a packed schedule that day might be an understatement. Besides being a week into her new job, Castro Ramirez was in the midst of relocation, having picked up her life in Sacramento to move to Los Angeles.

Castro Ramirez, one of 40 awardees being recognized by the UCLA Alumni Association for distinctions in public service, said despite her circumstances, she wasn’t about to miss the ceremony and networking reception for the Bruin Excellence in Civic Engagement awards.

“I'm really proud to be part of this first cohort with a number of distinguished alumni,” said Castro Ramirez, who had been serving as Governor Gavin Newsom’s appointed secretary for the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency since March 2020. “For me, the focus on civic leadership is really important.”

The award reception, which took place Nov. 13, included a certificate presentation and remarks from the association’s leadership. Darnell Hunt, the executive vice chancellor and provost at UCLA, also was in attendance to congratulate the honorees.

The Bruin Excellence in Civic Engagement awards, which will be awarded to a new class annually, is the brainchild of UCLA Alumni Association board member Matt Kaczmarek. He said he was inspired by the association’s Bruin 100 awards, launched in 2022, which recognize alumni fostering positive social change in the private sector. Kaczmarek felt a comparable program for civic service was needed.

“People who devote their careers to public service generally don’t seek recognition for their work, even though their impact can be significant,” said Kaczmarek, who earned a bachelor’s degree in geography and political science from UCLA in 2005.

Having held senior appointments in the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama and in the international finance division of the U.S. Treasury Department, Kaczmarek knows the gravitas of being in public service. He also served as White House liaison for John Kerry during the politician’s term as Secretary of State.

“As a student at UCLA, I learned the opportunity to have the greatest impact comes through dialogue, listening and pragmatic problem solving,” Kaczmarek, now a director and global head of market strategy and sustainable investing for asset management firm BlackRock. “I’ve met Bruins at all levels of government who consistently excel based on those same values.”

One of those Bruins, Oceana R. Gilliam, is chief of staff for Tennessee state Rep. Justin J. Pearson. The Democrat gained national attention in April, when he and Rep. Justin Jones protested on the chamber floor in support of stricter gun-control regulations. A few months prior, Gilliam had led Pearson’s campaign to victory, focusing on policy eradicating gun violence, poverty alleviation and enhancing community safety.

Gilliam wears many hats in the civic realm, including serving as senior program manager for the Center for Justice Innovation, a nonprofit that strives for a more equitable criminal legal system. She’s proud of the work she does at the center, building alternatives to incarceration.

“Even at a young age, I’ve always had this servant leader’s heart,” said Gilliam, who earned a master’s degree in public policy from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs in 2019. Her next endeavor is law school; she hopes to fulfill her childhood dream of being a criminal court judge. Gilliam said her family’s involvement with the criminal justice system has informed her career trajectory.

She was honored to be named an award recipient last month. Though she had planned to return to Tennessee following a business trip, she changed her flights to ensure a stop in Los Angeles for the reception.

“Once you go to Luskin, you’re family for life,” Gilliam said. It still strikes her when she’s on a video call with Los Angeles County for work — and she sees the face of one of her Luskin School peers on the other end.

“The advantage of doing this recognition program not only brings more awareness to what UCLA grads or Luskin grads are doing, but what so many other people are doing in the field of public service and civic engagement,” she said.

At the reception, Gilliam caught up with fellow alumna Castro Ramirez, who earned her master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the Luskin School in 1996. Castro Ramirez has sustained a strong connection with the school, sitting on its advisory board as co-chair of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee, where she helps students get support with fellowships.

“I benefited tremendously from the support that I received as a student,” said Castro Ramirez, who was the first in her family to attend college when she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and Chicano studies at UCLA in 1994. “I think it's important for us to continue understanding the needs and the support that is necessary for students of color and students of underprivileged or underrepresented backgrounds.”

Yue Rong, another civic service awardee present for Monday night’s reception, is proud to stay connected with the university where he earned his Ph.D. in environmental health sciences in 1995. Now an environmental program manager at the Los Angeles Water Board, Rong said thinking civically is the reason to study at a place like UCLA, which bestowed on him the knowledge to “serve for the people.”

In addition to serving at the California Environmental Protection Agency, Rong has been a board member for the Groundwater Resources Association of California and served as president of the Southern California Chinese-American Environmental Protection Association. He was also on the UCLA Alumni Association Outstanding Graduate Student Award committee.

“That is a pretty big deal to me. There are so many alumni from UCLA. It’s not that easy to serve in that position,” said Rong, who has also maintained strong ties with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. He helped current students engage in mock interviews and provided career-readiness mentoring as a member of the school’s alumni board.

“UCLA provides its students and alumni with opportunities to gain practical experience resulting in meaningful impact while managing through real challenges,” said Kaczmarek, who spoke at the awards ceremony. “It’s no wonder why so many Bruins count among our nation’s best civic leaders.”

Read more about all 40 recipients of the inaugural Bruin Excellent in Civic Engagement awards and stay up to date about 2024 nomination submissions.