White House honors Welcome Back founder

May 31 , 2011


José Ramón Fernández-Peña, M.D., was honored May 19 as an Obama Administration "Champion of Change" at a White House event.The associate professor of health education and founder of the Welcome Back Initiative also led a roundtable discussion at the event about helping medical professionals who emmigrate from other countries qualify for practice in the U.S. and serve poor and immigrant communities.

Photo of Welcome Back founder and director, Jose Ramon Fernandez-Pena

Welcome Back Initiative founder and director José Ramón Fernández-Peña, M.D.

"Champions of Change" recognition events and roundtable discussions are part of President Obama's "Winning the Future" initiative and are administered by the Office of Public Engagement. Champions are educators, entrepreneurs and others who embody President Obama's call to "out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world."

This month two other organizations also announced honors for Dr. Fernández-Peña. He accepted an E. Pluribus Unum Award on May 18 in Washington, D.C. The award of $50,000 was presented by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on improving the integration of immigrants in the U.S. The national award recognized the Welcome Back Initiative's success with integrating immigrants into the fabric of American life.

"The nimble Welcome Back Centers work tirelessly to prevent the talents of skilled immigrants from going to waste, allowing them to instead be used for the benefit of all Americans," said Margie McHugh, co-director of MPI's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.

On June 1 Dr. Fernández-Peña will accept the Champion of Health Professions Diversity award from The California Wellness Foundation (TCWF), which will present him with a medal and $25,000 check at a Los Angeles ceremony. TCWF is a nonprofit foundation that focuses on improving the health of the people of California. This award recognizes Dr. Fernández-Peña's work to promote diversity in health professions.

"The Welcome Back Center has developed into an important model program for increasing California’s health workforce and its diversity," said Gary L. Yates, TCWF president and CEO. "The California Wellness Foundation is pleased to recognize Dr. Fernández-Peña's significant contributions and long-time commitment to this important issue."

Since its founding in 2001, the Welcome Back Initiative has helped thousands of health professionals from more than 150 countries obtain the licenses and certifications required to continue their health sector careers in the U.S. Today, the San Francisco Welcome Back Center is the lead site of a nationwide program that includes centers in Colorado, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington, Maryland, New York, Texas and San Diego, California. Staff counsel and guide foreign-trained health professionals through the process of licensing, credentialing and finding educational programs they may need, including English language instruction. Services are free of charge.

Welcome Back is an initiative of Community Health Works, a partnership of SF State and CCSF. Dr. Fernández-Peña based its mission on personal experience. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1985 and earning a degree in public administration from New York University, Fernández-Peña took an administrative position with a health care organization. There, he met other foreign-trained physicians in the same type of work who could not find the right process to relicense as a physician in the U.S. When Fernández-Peña moved to San Francisco to manage a health education program in the Mission District, he saw the crucial need for more health professionals who could speak the language and understand the cultural context of the communities they served. In 1999, Fernández-Peña came to SF State to run a joint program between SF State and CCSF that identified the staffing needs of the Bay Area health sector. With the support of the faculty at both higher education institutions, the first Welcome Back Center was launched in San Francisco.


Denize Springer