All in the Family

Over the past couple years, I have written about some extraordinary young immigrants in our country. Common to all of these personal success stories has been the quiet assistance of a single organization, The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. The story of its founders resembles that of its fellows: they were two immigrants themselves with little more than ambition, talent, work ethic and huge hearts.

Paul and Daisy Soros arrived in this country right after the Second World War, in their twenties. They were strangers to each other, fleeing Nazi persecution in Hungary. They fell in love and married six decades ago. Paul was accepted at Stanford and MIT, but he couldn't afford to go to either. So he took a scholarship at the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn and emerged with a graduate degree in engineering. He founded a company that would become one of the most successful builders of ports in the world. Daisy Soros--mother, social activist and lover of the arts--has become one of New York City's most prolific philanthropists.

In 1997, they created The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. They wanted to find people who, like them, had the ability and desire for an advanced education, and who were also willing to take big risks--the type of risks that can lead to breakthroughs.. In addition to talent and potential for leadership in their chosen fields, the candidates are required to have an understanding and respect for our nation's principles and values: freedom and individual rights. To qualify for a fellowship, the student also must have been an immigrant or the child of one--citizens, green card holders and DACA recipients are eligible.

Every year, the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship program, with a $75 million charitable trust, selects 30 applicants who each receive up to $90,000 to cover education costs and expenses over two years. The pool of candidates is remarkable: more than 1,000 per year. First they are evaluated on their extensive written applications and are narrowed down to 77 finalists who are then interviewed in person. Finally, 30 Fellows are selected each year.

The oldest graduates are now about 40. Their achievements are just as remarkable as their applications and interviews indicated they would be. Eight law school graduates have clerked for Supreme Court justices. They are now full professors at the most prestigious medical schools, brilliant scientists, orchestra conductors, voice and instrumental soloists, professional writers and more. Just a few months ago, Vivek Murthy was appointed the 19th Surgeon General of the United States.

So I thought it was the right time to profile the current class of Fellows as a whole. The Fellowship recently sent me some interesting data about its class of 2015, which ranges in age from 21 to 30 and has two more females than it does males. Many of the Fellows I've profiled before have been children of immigrants, yet this class was mostly born abroad. On average, these Fellows came to the U.S. at age 12, just slightly younger than I was when I arrived here with my brother from Romania. For them, this was indeed the land of freedom and opportunity. Two thirds of the class said they came to the U.S. for its better opportunities and its educational resources. They earned their undergraduate degree at an amazing variety of institutions. Yes, four were from Yale and three from Harvard, but nearly every one of the remaining 23 were educated at a school attended by none of the others in the class. Educationally, they represent a cross-section of diversity in American higher education.

This cohort of 30 Fellows--get this--have already founded a total of 57 organizations among them, and none of these grads is older than 30. Each of them had an average of half a dozen extracurricular activities in college. The average number of countries each student has already visited: 11.7.

The most endearing factoid from this group, though, was a list of the ways they answered a question about who their most important role model is. As you might expect, the answers were wide-ranging: Elon Musk, John Cage, Matt Damon, Avicenna (Medieval philosopher) and Catherine McKinnon. But it warmed my heart to see that eight of them named their "mother," seven said "parents," and four answered, "father." Even the most exceptional among us depend on the things they see and hear and learn from their earliest years at home. (I can thoroughly identify with that.) It's no accident these PD Soros Fellows almost always say, once they have been picked for a grant, that the Fellowship becomes a second family to them from then on. Wouldn't it be great if we had more organizations like it in these times of economic struggle? Caring families are so much of what all of us need most.

It all started with a dream and the generosity of two immigrants who never forgot their roots, their journey and their amazing love for the values, freedoms and opportunities of these United States. And now some 535 extraordinary young men and women carry on that tradition--giving back every day with their talent, wisdom and creativity.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.