A UWC-USA graduate who puts smiles on the faces of some of the most underserved children around the world is this year’s Giulio Regeni Alumni Impact Award winner.
Dr. Ruben Ayala ‘92 is chief medical officer for Operation Smile, which provides life-saving reconstructive cleft palate surgeries.
“It’s a huge honor,” said Dr. Ruben. “I can’t even describe it. I was surprised, honored and overwhelmed and didn’t expect this at all.”
A public health physician from Panama with more than 25 years of experience in advocacy and humanitarian assistance, he has planned, executed and overseen surgical programs in more than 40 countries. Dr. Ayala also oversaw the establishment of Operation Smile foundations in low- and middle-income countries to patients affected by cleft conditions.
Classmate Becky Day nominated Dr. Ayala.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled,” Day said. “Over the last several years, Ruben has shared multiple times on our class Facebook page stories and videos from Operation Smile. To know Ruben is to know that he is a person with such a kind heart.”
Day noted that Dr. Ayala had a passion for Operation Smile long before he worked for them, volunteering for the nonprofit while still at UWC-USA.
“After going to medical school, he clearly could have chosen a different direction, but he chose to stick with Operation Smile, an organization that gives back worldwide,” she said.
Given annually to a UWC-USA alumnus whose work and life exemplify the UWC mission, the impact award was created in memory of Giulio Regeni ’07, an Italian citizen and a student at Cambridge University who was murdered while conducting his doctoral research on the formation of a street vendors’ union in Egypt. Giulio was in Cairo when on Jan. 25, 2016, he disappeared. His body was found nine days later.
Alumni nominate recipients for the award. Other finalists were Anna Wieslander ‘87 and Jessica Horn ’97, said UWC-USA Alumni Engagement Officer Reed Baumgarten ’89. Alumni on the UWC-USA Board of Trustees choose the recipient.
“Each of the finalists was ‘living the UWC mission’ in their own unique way and doing impressive work, but I think Ruben won this year because after a difficult year filled with so much isolation, death and illness, his work feels very tangible,” said board member Melanie Weston ‘86. “He is on the front lines, changing children’s lives through healthcare, something that almost all of us had on our minds this past year.”
Weston noted this in no way diminishes the complex, difficult work the two runners-up are engaged in.
“In contrast it just fills me with pride to see the broad scope of work our alumni are doing,” she said. “Every single one of our graduates is making a difference in their community, in their own small or large way.”
The award recipient speaks during graduation on the Montezuma campus. Dr. Ayala’s presentation for the May 11 ceremony will be done virtually since the graduation is open only to students and employees.
A resident of Norfolk, Va., Dr. Ayala received his undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in chemistry from Linfield College, McMinnville, Ore. The 47-year-old got his medical degree from UAG School of Medicine and master’s in public health from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
More recently, Dr. Ayala has focused on the review of surgical outcomes and the evolution of standards of surgical care for patients with cleft lip and cleft palate. He served as part of the delegation of the government of Vietnam to the World Health Assembly in 2015 and 2017, helping align the country’s support for global surgery and anesthesia.
Dr. Ayala is the president of the Permanent Council of the Global Alliance for Surgical, Obstetric, Trauma and Anesthesia Care, and represents Operation Smile at the Global Initiative for Children’s Surgery, the World Health Organization’s Global Initiative for Emergency and Essential Surgical Care, and the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council. He leads Operation Smile’s global health policy efforts promoting access to safe, timely and effective surgical care to underserved communities around the world.
Dr. William P. Magee Jr., co-founder and chief executive officer for Operation Smile Global Headquarters in Virginia Beach, Va., noted that Dr. Ayala is someone whose foundation embodies the principles of uniting people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.
“As chief medical officer at Operation Smile, Dr. Ayala has drawn upon his years of experience and growth within the organization to be an advocate for the underserved and a change agent at the global level,” Magee said.