Stanford University honors José Padilla and Fred Swaniker for their work making a positive impact on communities with the 2024 President’s Award for the Advancement of the Common Good. This award celebrates alumni dedicated to making a difference in their communities and the world through public service.

“I am delighted that this year’s award honors José and Fred, two alumni who have dedicated their careers to uplifting communities and solving entrenched social problems,” said President Richard Saller. “They exemplify the values of learning, social responsibility, and service that are at the heart of the President’s Award for the Advancement of the Common Good.”

José Padilla

As executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), Padilla, ’74, championed the rights of farmworkers and others experiencing rural poverty for nearly four decades.

Padilla grew up in Brawley, a vibrant farmworking community in California’s Imperial Valley, just a short drive from the U.S.-Mexico border. His family, unable to continue their own education, emphasized its importance and taught him to give back to others.

“Your schooling was not for you to get rich or to get a good job that paid a high salary,” Padilla said. “You were to consider something where you could give back, and lawyering allowed me to advocate for the community where I had been born and raised.”

At Stanford, Padilla participated in activism, joining boycotts and picket lines led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. “Being at Stanford in a political time, you found out a little bit about who you were politically and how you could take part,” Padilla said. “I realized that I had an interest in working for an organization that could do justice work.”

As a first-generation student, Padilla helped shape Stanford’s culture. He was editor and a political cartoonist of the campus newspaper Chicanismo, started the literary magazine Miquiztli, and was a resident assistant in the first years of Casa Zapata. Padilla received his Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Stanford in 1974 and his law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978.

Public service is its own reward and has provided me with a sense of fulfillment and purpose.”
José Padilla, ’74

Before joining CRLA, Padilla helped develop a community-based low-income credit union, the bilingual community radio station Radio Sin Fronteras, and an immigration center serving Central American refugees. At CRLA, he led more than 65 attorneys, 47 community workers, and 17 field offices, providing free civil legal services to around 48,000 rural farmworkers annually.

Under Padilla, CRLA achieved significant legal victories, including the restoration of $20 million in family planning funding for indigent Californians, filing the first known suit charging for environmental racism, and bringing the first sexual harassment case on behalf of farmworker women.

“It starts with a problem that just walks into your office, and it makes you think differently and you figure out how you can serve farmworkers in a different way,” Padilla said. “We were always driven to ask, what other communities are we not reaching?”

CRLA expanded its focus to include LGBTQ+ issues, sexual harassment cases, foreclosure prevention, welfare access, and outreach to farmworkers who speak neither English nor Spanish. Padilla created community programs to assist vulnerable rural communities such as Indigenous people from Mexico.

Under Padilla, CRLA also contributed to the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, drafted the Special Agricultural Worker provisions, and co-drafted the state’s Migrant Education Law.

“Gratitude is an important value of mine, and in my life philosophy, you give back to life more than what you take from life,” Padilla said. “Receiving an elite education, that’s a blessing, and my father instilled in me his value that there is a responsibility to give back to those communities that had raised me.”

Padilla said it’s “humbling” to receive the award from Stanford. “Public service is its own reward and has provided me with a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and because of that, I never had any expectation of being recognized for it,” he said. “I feel very honored to be chosen.”

Fred Swaniker

For decades, Swaniker, MBA ’04, has supported innovation and responsible corporate practices in Africa and served as a global leader in social entrepreneurship.

“What motivates me ultimately is my undying love for Africa,” Swaniker said. “And I’m not going to stop until I achieve a dream for Africa as being prosperous, peaceful, and successful as it can be. That’s a long-term vision, and I’ve always thought long term.”

Swaniker is the founder of the African Leadership Group, which aims to develop 3 million ethical and entrepreneurial leaders for Africa by 2035 and match them with career opportunities through three main organizations: the African Leadership Academy, a two-year pre-university program for high-potential youth; the African Leadership University, an undergraduate and postgraduate institution with campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda; and Sand Technologies, which trains software engineers and data scientists in Africa and deploys this talent to solve problems for governments and companies around the world. Sand Technologies is leveraging artificial intelligence to enable access to health care, water, and telecommunications; address climate change; and facilitate smarter cities around the world.

Swaniker encourages students in the African Leadership Group to be “cathedral builders,” referencing the Milan Cathedral, which took more than 500 years to build. “It’s important to work on things that you will not live to see the full impact of because those are the most important problems,” Swaniker said. “Their job as leaders is to build something bigger than them and leave it behind for someone else to take it to the next level.”

Born in Ghana, Swaniker became headmaster of a school in Botswana at age 18 after his father’s death. “My family has been involved in educational institutions for a couple of generations, and so I’ve always believed in the power of education to equalize and transform society,” Swaniker said.

I developed a philosophy that the only way I can justify my privilege is by using it to do hard things and to create opportunities for other people to solve big problems.”
Fred Swaniker, MBA ’04

Swaniker earned his Bachelor of Arts in economics from Macalester College in 1999 and his MBA from Stanford in 2004.

“Stanford, for me, was a place where I could dream,” Swaniker said. Stanford “sets the tone that innovation is allowed here, and it’s, in fact, expected. That’s what Stanford students do. They change the world, they create things, they build things. … They understand that a few people can have a tremendous impact on the world because that is the story of Stanford.”

The university’s history of innovation, high quality of education, and collaborative culture defined Swaniker’s Stanford experience. He conceived the idea for the African Leadership Group in a Stanford MBA class and wrote its business plan as his final project.

“My Stanford education opened locked doors for me,” he added. At Stanford, Swaniker met future co-founders, board members, and donors who put up initial capital for the African Leadership Group. “It’s a community that inspired me, that mentored me, that partnered with me, that invested in me, that helped me learn,” Swaniker said.

The African Leadership Group grew from training fewer than 1,500 students at a time to training 250,000 people across 33 campuses. It integrates leadership, ethics, values, and technology training to address global issues such as health care, education, climate change, and wildlife conservation. Last year, the African Leadership Group incubated 400 tech startups.

Swaniker said he feels “incredibly surprised, privileged, and honored” by the President’s Award. “I had all these incredible opportunities, and over time, I developed a philosophy that the only way I can justify my privilege is by using it to do hard things and to create opportunities for other people to solve big problems.”

For more information

The Office of the President partnered with the Haas Center for Public Service and the Stanford Alumni Association to create the award in 2021. Stanford invites the university community to nominate living alumni, from recent graduates to those with established careers in public service. A committee of alumni, faculty, and staff reached a strong consensus for each of this year’s award winners.

The award joins other university awards conferred during Commencement honoring faculty, students, and staff, including the Kenneth M. Cuthbertson Award for Exceptional Service to Stanford University, the Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for Distinctive Contributions to Undergraduate Education, the Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the President’s Awards for Excellence Through Diversity.

Award information, including the nomination form, is available on the Haas Center website. The nomination period for the 2025 President’s Award is now open.