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Ratz Named 2011 Finnegan Award Recipient

05/26/11
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This year’s Finnegan Award candidates were, in photo at left, (L-R) Robyn Antonucci, winner Leon Ratz, Susan Choy, Scott Landay, and Molly Rosenwasser (inset). (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Melissa Beecher | Chronicle Staff

Published: May 26, 2011

“When one of my colleagues asks about Leon Ratz,” says Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs Donald Hafner, “I usually start by saying, ‘Look, you probably are not going to believe most of what I’m about to tell you...’”  

The high praise from Hafner echoes what countless faculty members say about Ratz, winner of the 2011 Edward H. Finnegan, SJ, Memorial Award — Boston College’s most prestigious graduation honor, given to the student who best exemplifies the spirit of BC’s motto, ”Ever to Excel.”   

Ratz says it’s a motto he has considered and reflected on many times during his years at BC, which have seen him pursue academic and extracurricular interests in the arms trade and its impact on human rights violations.  

“Growing up, my parents taught me to do the best I could, no matter what I did. When I take on a challenge, I’m personally committed to not only completing the challenge but to go above and beyond even my own expectations. BC really has fostered that drive,” said Ratz, a Presidential Scholar who earned his degree in political science.  

Other 2011 Finnegan Award Finalists:

Susan Choy, an operations management and marketing major in the Carroll School of Management with an American Studies minor (concentration in Asian American Studies), has been an active student leader since her freshman year. The 2011 Dr. Donald Brown Award winner for extraordinary contributions to the greater AHANA community, Choy worked as chief-of-staff of the AHANA Leadership Council, AHANA Caucus co-director, AHANA Caucus representative and vice president of the Southeast Asian Student Association.

An honors student in the Lynch School of Education, Robyn Antonuccihas been a UGBC senator, peer advisor for the First Year Professional Development Program and co-chair of corporate sponsorship, team development and the ceremonies committee of BC Relay for Life. Antonucci’s combination of service and scholarship included serving as a research assistant to former LSOE Dean Joseph O’Keefe, SJ, an intern at the American Cancer Society, and a volunteer at the Hogar Bethel Orphanage in Argentina and the Jackson-Mann School in Boston.

Scott Landay, a CSOM finance major with a philosophy minor, has worked with the PULSE program for four years, volunteered at the Pine Street Inn, was director of Eagle Ops and is a Portico standout. Landay cites his experience at PULSE and the PULSE Council as “something I will take with me for the rest of my life.” He will go to work as a consultant at PwC Advisory after volunteering this summer serving the less fortunate in Kenya.

Connell School of Nursing student Molly Rosenwasser’s leadership is colored by a desire to support and appreciate cultural awareness. A member of the Jenks Leadership Program, 4-Boston, participant in the Appalachia service trip, volunteer at a community hospital in Grahamstown, South Africa and Haiti, and mentor for the Keys to Inclusive Leadership in Nursing Program, Rosenwasser strives to better the global community.

Born in the Ukraine, Ratz immigrated with his parents, Larry and Yelena, to the United States in 1994, eventually settling in Fairlawn, NJ. Ratz said his family history – his parents were part of a persecuted Jewish minority in the Soviet Union and many family members were killed during the Holocaust – had a profound impact on him.  

“Knowing about those experiences formed a deep awareness of the importance of human rights and the importance of protecting those rights,” said Ratz.   

In high school, Ratz became involved with Amnesty International through its campaign to abolish the death penalty in New Jersey. As a student ambassador for AI, he met several Jesuits from St. Peter’s College and was impressed enough to consider Boston College because of its Jesuit affiliation.  

“I was looking for a university that would bring social justice to the front of its mission and Boston College does that,” said Ratz.    

During his first weeks on campus, he said he “unexpectedly” became involved in Hillel when a residence hall mate invited him to Shabbat diner.

“He took me to my first of many, many Shabbat diners here at BC. In an unexpected way, BC made me more Jewish. By coming to a school where religion plays such an important role in student formation, I had the opportunity to study my own faith.”    

Over the next four years, Ratz would hold various positions within Hillel, including as president last year. Among his many accomplishments, he established BC as the first Jesuit University in the country to offer on-campus services for Jewish high holidays.  

“That night was a wonderful and surreal experience,” Ratz remembers. “Here we were at a Jesuit, Catholic university, celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with Jewish students, Catholic students, Muslim students...there were faculty in the crowd, Catholic priests. At that point it hit me, BC is a very special place where people from all different backgrounds can come together and find spirituality and faith in meaningful ways.”  

Ratz’s continuing involvement in Amnesty International drew him to AI’s advocacy for a United Nations Arms Trade Treaty that would establish legally binding, common standards for how countries import and export conventional weapons. Ratz credits a BC Advanced Study Grant for enabling him to conduct research on the topic at AI’s London headquarters the summer following his freshman year.  

“With the help of AI, I had the opportunity to start going to the United Nations my sophomore year. I went to various meetings about the Arms Trade Treaty and worked with the advocacy team of Amnesty at the UN,” said Ratz, who would shuttle between his classes at BC to New York City several times a week.   

When the schedule for treaty negotiations seemed too limited, Ratz took action.

“I was sitting in O’Neill Library studying for a midterm in economics and an idea hit me: If governments want and need more time to discuss critical areas of this treaty and there isn’t enough time in the official UN calendar, why not organize something here in Boston?” Ratz said.

“I was frustrated on how slow the negotiations were going and it was a situation where I took it in my own hands and said ‘What can I do to speed this up?’”  

Leading a group of friends, he developed the Boston Symposium on the Arms Trade Treaty, a non-official working session for UN delegates to focus on the treaty. Ratz secured $100,000 from three foreign governments and brought leaders from more than 30 countries to Boston, including the US State Department. [The UN is scheduled to take up the treaty again this year.]  

In his Finnegan Award nomination letter for Ratz, Professor of Chemistry Dennis Sardella — who had been Presidential Scholars Program director at the time — said of the conference: “It was, in my opinion, a major international project of stunning vision, dwarfing anything I have seen from a BC student in my nearly 44 years here.”  

Ratz’s other BC activities included writing for The Heights, serving as an Office of Undergraduate Admission tour guide and student employee in the Bapst Art Library, interning at the Massachusetts State House and coordinating campus panel discussions “Reclaiming Politics as Service” and “The Obama Administration and the Future of Nuclear Arms Control.”   

Ratz plans on attending Harvard University’s Kennedy School in the fall to pursue a master’s in public policy. Beyond that, he remains open to many possibilities.  

“Who knows where I will end up after graduate school,” he laughed. “I can say that at the heart of what I will be doing is service and social justice. It’s the kind of values BC has instilled in me and it’s the kind of values that I hope will be at the heart of everything I do for the rest of my life.”