URI alumnus selected as finalist for Service to America Medal

Michael Camal ’18 in the running for People’s Choice Award for leading Homeland Security campaign to stop human trafficking

KINGSTON, R.I. – June 12, 2023 – A 2018 University of Rhode Island graduate has been selected as a finalist for a national award recognizing public service for his efforts leading a national campaign to combat human trafficking. He is now in the running for a vote-driven ‘People’s Choice’ Award.

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service recently announced the 2023 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. The Sammies—the “Oscars” of government service—are the premier awards recognizing America’s outstanding public servants. Michael Camal ’18 was selected as one of 27 finalists from over 350 nominations across the federal government. He recently made it to the top 12 as a candidate for the People’s Choice Award, which is based on the number of public votes each finalist receives. Voting will continue until the end of June.

Camal and colleague Maraya Lasinsky at the Manassas Regional Airport in Virginia, where they filmed a training video on the topic of trafficking in the aviation industry.

Camal works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, D.C. A senior engagement manager in the agency’s Center for Countering Human Trafficking, Camal was pleased to hear he’d been selected as a finalist in the Emerging Leaders category and says he hopes his nomination calls attention to the issue of human trafficking.

Camal started his federal career as an intern with the U.S. Marshals Service. He says that human trafficking cases are heartbreaking, but he feels compelled to bring awareness to this issue to help as many people as possible and save lives.

He credits his path to advocacy work with the start he received at the University of Rhode Island, where he majored in sociology with a minor in leadership studies.

“My URI mentors guided me through several internships and motivated me to pursue a career with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” he says. “I am forever grateful.”

Camal’s interest in a Homeland Security career stemmed from a networking opportunity that his first-year URI writing instructor facilitated. Alyson Leitch helped Camal secure a one-day job shadow opportunity at her husband’s Homeland Security office in Boston. Camal was able to learn about what DHS did after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and what security procedures were put in place.

“That was my first interaction with the federal government and got me interested in the overall Homeland Security mission,” he says. After graduation from URI, he went right to work for the department in D.C. and was promoted to a senior advisor in charge of the Blue Lightning Initiative.

The program raises awareness about the realities of human trafficking in the aviation industry. Through law enforcement cases and survivor testimonials, Camal’s team found that many victims of human trafficking were using commercial and private air travel while the exploitation was occurring. “The indicators are often subtle, but can be spotted if people are trained,” he says. “This is why it is important for staff to know the red flags.”

The numbers stagger: national hotline data identify 34,000 victims over the past several years, split evenly between U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. Last fiscal year, the department investigated 1,373 cases of human trafficking, carried out 3,655 arrests and assisted 765 victims.

Under Camal’s leadership, the program secured over 125 additional airline partners in just four years, increasing the program by over 600%. This includes several New England-based airports, such as the Rhode Island Airport Corporation. He also expanded the initiative to its first-ever participation by airports, aviation companies, university aviation departments, and foreign airlines.

Camal initiated training for more than 350,000 aviation staff members to recognize and report suspected cases and expanded the initiative’s network to help survivors. His dedication to human trafficking awareness training has contributed to better-informed staff, safer airports and greater awareness among the traveling public, and he’s been recognized by airline industry colleagues for his energy and work as a dedicated coalition builder.

A hidden crime

Camal says that victims of human trafficking can come from any demographic, any socioeconomic background. “The same thing goes with traffickers, they can be anyone.” Traffickers target people with vulnerabilities and those they can easily take advantage of, such as runaway youth, people with low socioeconomic status, LGBTQ, and those with drug addictions.

Even as the past few years have been a time of high stress in the airline industry, Camal has managed to grow his program, while keeping survivors’ voices and stories front and center as the reason to do this work.

“Airlines have many competing demands and that can make it challenging to encourage them to sign our memorandum of understanding and commit to help combat human trafficking,” he says. “Getting on calls with airline executives and explaining not only the reality of the situation but the potential positive impact their staff can have in the fight motivates them to get involved.” Camal often invites experts and survivors to share their experiences and explain clues that are sometimes missed.

The public can submit daily votes on the People’s Choice Award through June. He’ll learn if he won this summer, and asks the URI community to be aware of the issue of trafficking in daily life and while traveling; regular travelers can look for clues, too. He has led the creation of a video for the general public and suggests this toolkit as well.

He also hopes URI students will consider a future career in the federal government.

“The federal government provides unique opportunities to support missions that directly contribute to our national security,” Camal says. “This type of work is extremely rewarding. If you are interested, spend time creating a good federal resume, learn how USAjobs.gov works, and be open to starting somewhere you didn’t plan to. Then apply and keep applying!”

His former URI professor Barbara Costello, Professor of Sociology and Interim Chair of Criminology and Criminal Justice, will definitely be casting a vote for him. “I am thrilled to see what he’s accomplished and to see Michael nominated for this award,” she says. “But I’m not surprised—he was an outstanding student, very motivated, articulate, and poised.”

Camal has also continued to repay the favor to URI, she says. He’s always willing to communicate with current students about opportunities in the service of the federal government. “We are very proud of him!” says Costello.

To help support Camal’s work, vote for him in the People’s Choice Award. People can vote once a day until June 30th.