Chicago social work pioneer receives BCU's 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award

Bernarda Wong

2016 Distinguished Alumni Award winner Bernarda "Bernie" Wong '66 (middle) is pictured with her BCU classmates Margaret Dolan (left) and Sister Janet May (right). Wong created the Chinese American Service League that now provides social work services to more than 17,000 people annually.

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Nationally renowned social worker Bernarda Wong has received Briar Cliff University's 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award. Wong was recognized on Thursday, May 16, as part of graduation week festivities on campus.

The Distinguished Alumni Award is given to someone who has obtained a degree from Briar Cliff, lives a life reflective of Catholic Franciscan ideals, excels in professional activities and demonstrates personal commitment to Briar Cliff.

... to watch an alum like Bernie go out and take such purposeful action to make the world a better place – it’s heartwarming to know she carries on the Briar Cliff values through her work.

—Beverly Wharton, Briar Cliff president

Wong graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Briar Cliff in 1966. Consistent with Franciscan values, Wong graduated knowing she wanted to make a difference in the world around her. This led her to fulfilling a dream. After graduating with her master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, Wong went on to start the Chinese American Service League in Chicago, Ill., in the late 70’s.

The original goal of the organization was to teach English as a second language to the Chinese immigrants. Today, Wong believes it is important to keep a pulse on the needs of the Chinese immigrant community so that Chinese American Service League can continue to create resources that assist with these ever-present needs.

Under Wong’s guidance, the organization has thrived. What began as a small operation with just 10 people is now an organization that employs more than 500 multilingual and multicultural professionals. With a budget of over $13 million, the Chinese American Service League now serves 17,000 clients annually.

To say she has excelled as a professional would be an understatement. Wong has been recognized for her achievements and leadership at Chinese American Service League over seventy times. In 1996, Wong was among Crain’s 100 list of “Most Influential Women in Chicago” and in 1998, Wong was named one of 100 women who “Make a Difference in Chicago” in Today’s Chicago Women. More recently, Wong won the Jane Addams Making History Award for Distinction in Social Service form the Chicago History Museum.

Wong has made history throughout her life and career, and it all began with a solid foundation instilled in her through a Briar Cliff education.

“At Briar Cliff, above and beyond giving students a liberal arts education, we teach students the value of service and caring for all,” says Beverly Wharton, president of Briar Cliff University. “So, to watch an alum like Bernie go out and take such purposeful action to make the world a better place – it’s heartwarming to know she carries on the Briar Cliff values through her work.”

Wong, originally from Hong Kong, chose Briar Cliff through a somewhat random selection out of a big book of colleges and universities. Her reason – the university met all of her mother’s criteria (at that time an all girl’s Catholic school located in a small city), was located on a scenic hilltop and had underground tunnels to help her brave the Iowa winters. But maybe more importantly, the University was able to award Wong a full-tuition scholarship with acceptance in recognition of her financial need and her promising future. 

Undoubtedly, Wong has gone on to fulfill her potential and has put her education to good use. Wong came from a large family, the seventh of seven children. She is married to Albert, her husband of 47 years. Together, they have one child and two grandchildren.

Tags: BCU, Alumni, Social Work, Sociology, Justice