O’Neill IUPUI’s André Zhang Sonera doesn’t just talk about the importance of community engagement; he has been living out his mission to make a difference in Indianapolis and his hometown of San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, for years.
After Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, André stepped up to help from 1,870 miles away in Indianapolis. Just a year earlier, he had served as a Sam H. Jones Community Service Leader in his senior year at O’Neill, coordinating several campus-wide Days of Service. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, André saw an opportunity to put those skills to use to help his hometown.
He volunteered as the logistics organizer for ¡Puerto Rico Se Levanta!, helping organize a local donation drive to send necessities back home.
“As a group, we collected, sorted, and organized items donated from hundreds of people across Indiana who dropped off items at Lawrence Park, and then collaborated with multiple stakeholders and government agencies” he recalls. “Thanks to that collaboration, we transported more than 40 pallets of essential items to the affected communities in Puerto Rico—¡Con amor desde Indianápolis!”
Now a graduate student with O’Neill, the university is honoring André’s dedication to service and community by awarding him the William M. Plater Medallion for Civic Engagement. André says he was humbled and honored to receive the award as he closes out his academic career with O’Neill.
In May 2021, he will earn his Master of Public Affairs degree in Policy Analysis, his second O’Neill degree and one of many achievements within the school. In the past nine years, he earned his bachelor’s degree in Civic Leadership and Policy Studies, participated in O’Neill’s Washington Leadership Program, and was selected as the Peterson Fellow during the program’s first year.
That fellowship opened the door to André’s current career with the city of Indianapolis. Now the Project Manager for Economic and Community Development for Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office, where he works to improve Indianapolis and ensure equity and access among its residents. Most recently helping Latinx Hoosiers get registered for their COVID-19 vaccine and utilizing the arts to educate fellow residents with the #MaskUpIndy campaign.
“I think as a public servant, it is important always to know and connect with the people we are serving,” he says. “As a transplant from Puerto Rico, civic engagement has been a key resource for me to not only get to know Indianapolis on a deeper level, but also further my professional development.”
He also serves as a precinct committee member for the Marion County Democratic Party, helping mobilize and registering voters during elections. Last year, he volunteered as a poll worker with the Marion County Election Board to ensure that early voters could cast their ballots safely and securely.
But his commitment to serving others extends well beyond office hours.
His goal is to make Indianapolis a better place through policy but also by addressing quality-of-life issues. That’s why he served on the Young Professionals Board for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, getting involved with the maintenance and care of the Cultural Trail.
“As someone who does not own a car, I became involved with the Cultural Trail because it allows me to ride my bike or walk to work every morning and connects me with many of our vibrant neighborhoods,” he explains.
That work provided an opportunity to come full circle with the National FFA Organization. André is an alumnus of the group and decided to attend IUPUI after visiting for their National Convention. During his time at the Cultural Trail, he helped organize cleanups and lead a Day of Service with young people who are now FFA members, just as he was.
“It was fulfilling to work and educate students from across the country about this Indianapolis asset and how it serves as the beating heart of this urban jungle,” he says.
To him, working with the FFA was not only a service to the Cultural Trail and the city, but also to the students with whom he works. André has a passion for helping young people. He is a Big Brother for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Indiana, serving as a role model for the past three years.
“Being a Big Brother allowed me to be a male mentor to a young man, which I didn’t have growing up,” he explains. “As a son of a single mother who also raised me in a low-income neighborhood, it was important for me to be a Big Brother because I wanted to help my Little Brother realize that there is good and excellence within himself.”
Those qualities exist in André as well. His professors and advisors saw them during his time with O’Neill and helped cultivate his existing talent by showing him the available opportunities.
“O’Neill’s faculty and staff have been key connectors for several engagement opportunities within our community,” he says. “I’ve been able to be on the forefront of what’s happening across Indianapolis and the rest of the state, and that wouldn’t have happened without the great O’Neill family who always kept me in the loop.”
André encourages current O’Neill students to take advantage of those same opportunities and get involved.
“You get to interact and work with individuals who are striving every day to make our community a better place,” he says. “These experiences give you a first-hand chance to understand and appreciate what it means to be a public servant, so take advantage of them.”