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Born in the Philippines, Thelma came to the U.S. in 1951 at age 15, earned a degree in biology, and eventually moved to Anchorage in the late 60s. Politically active, she ran George McGoverns 1972 presidential campaign in Alaska. In 1974, she was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives, where she served four terms, becoming the first Filipino American legislator in the U.S.
Once her children finished college, she obtained her J.D. degree from the District of Columbia School of Law in 1991. In 1994, she was appointed Director of Alaskas Office of Equal Opportunity. An expert on Alaskan/Filipino History, Thelma wrote Filipinos in Alaska: 1788-1958 and produced a documentary film on the topic.