Robert Fernandez and Daniel Kim followed very different paths to Yale. Born on different continents, raised on opposite coasts of the United States, their immigrant status was just about the only thing the new Americans had in common growing up, until both were confronted with obstacles that threatened to end their higher education early. But today, the resilient pair are students at Yale (Fernandez is a second-year Ph.D. student, and Kim a first-year M.D./Ph.D. student) and recipients of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans for 2014.
Each year the fellowship, established in 1997, recognizes 30 New Americans—permanent residents, naturalized citizens, or the children of naturalized citizens—and provides support for their graduate educations. Fellows receive awards of up to $90,000 to cover tuition and living expenses.
“One of the very special aspects of this particular fellowship is that it is multidisciplinary. We have medical doctors and scientific researchers communicating with lawyers, journalists, artists, musicians, historians, and business people,” said Craig Harwood, the director of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. The fellows represent 130 undergraduate institutions, 65 graduate institutions, and family origins in 89 different countries.
Fernandez lived in New Jersey for 13 years before learning that he was undocumented. He moved to the United States from Lima, Peru, when he was 5 years old. His parents, who had both studied business, left the poor economic climate of Peru behind for the promise of opportunity in America. His mother worked long hours in a factory, and his father found work in the food industry. Money was still tight, but Fernandez thrived. He picked up on English quickly, made friends easily, worked hard in school, and felt at home. Until it came time to think about college.
As a high school senior, Fernandez wanted to study business at Rutgers, but he needed a social security number. His mother told him he didn’t have one. The Fernandez family had been petitioning for residency since coming to America, but the arduous and bureaucratic process was marked by frustrations and failures—like the lawyer who disappeared with all their savings.
Fernandez watched his friends and classmates head off to four-year schools and get jobs, but he couldn’t do any of those things. “At the time it felt like no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you do, you’re stuck, until that situation resolves,” he said. Still, he refused to give up. “You just have to find a way not to let your fire go out, not to let your ambition go out,” said Fernandez. “I just decided, as hopeless as it seemed at the time, to work as hard as I could and figure it out along the way.”
Determined to continue his education, Fernandez spent two years at Union County Community College, where he was elected to Phi Theta Kappa and discovered his love of biology. “I was a business major so I could help out my family in the long run, but I was really passionate about science,” he said. When he learned that the City University of New York system accepted undocumented students, he transferred to York College to study biology.
Fernandez excelled at York. He started a biotechnology club, became a biology tutor, and began a research career that would lead him to Yale. This year he joined the lab of Michael R. Koelle, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, to study neuronal circuits in C. elegans. And after almost two decades in the United States, he became a permanent resident. The Soros Fellowship program recognized Fernandez for his perseverance.
“We’re pleased to support someone who has accomplished so much with such limited resources,” said Harwood. The committee was impressed by Fernandez’s unrelenting commitment to education. “He really took it to the highest level on his own efforts and against all odds, especially given the fact that he was undocumented.”
That’s exactly the kind of student the Soros Fellowship looks for—those who can find a way to make the most of their opportunities. “We’re looking for individuals who have demonstrated innovative and creative accomplishments whether in their academic pursuits or extracurricular pursuits,” said Harwood.
Daniel Kim, who’s entering the M.D./Ph.D. program, stood out for his breadth of interests and his commitment to scientific research, said Harwood.
The move to the United States was hard on Kim. He was a precocious 7-year-old when his family relocated from Korea to Silicon Valley for his father’s job. In Korea, his teachers found him spirited and enthusiastic, but that all changed when he started school in the U.S. “By the time, I entered second grade, I could barely read one sentence in English,” said Kim. He was in a state of constant confusion as to what was happening around him. It took Kim years to thrive academically and socially.
His parents’ example and encouragement fostered his perseverance. His father, a semiconductor engineer in Silicon Valley, was the first from a long line of farmers to attend college. Both his parents encouraged Kim to make the most of every obstacle and opportunity by asking himself: “What is the best thing we can do for the situations we are given?”
It was a lesson that Kim carried with him to Harvard, and put into practice his freshman year when his father fell ill with cancer. “We were compelled by his compassion, demonstrated by taking off time from school to support his father when he was battling cancer. That actually shaped his path in realizing he wanted to pursue medicine,” said Harwood.
After making his decision to spend time with his family, Kim initially expected that his time off would be a ’bump in the road,’ a small setback in his college education. Kim recalled what his parents had taught him about facing obstacles, however, and asked himself, “Given that I’m back home, what’s the most I can do?” For the first time he thought about pursuing research in addition to medicine.
Back in California with his family, Kim met Jean Tang, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of dermatology and one of his father’s doctors at Stanford. Once his father’s health stabilized, he joined her research team, where Tang introduced Kim to the possibilities of academic research. “For me, medicine is a lot about the question, ‘how do you make people better?’” explains Kim. “What research allows is asking the question, ‘how do you make people better, better?’”
Kim became interested in the novel and creative ways researchers can make the clinical process more efficient—such as Tang’s work repurposing a drug that’s typically used to treat athletes foot and applying it to the treatment of skin cancer. Tang, a member of the first class of Soros Fellows in 1997, also encouraged Kim to apply for the fellowship. “The Soros fellowship is considered to be a lifelong fellowship” said Harwood, who notes that annual conferences bring together current fellows and alumni. According to Harwood, many classes become very close and stay in contact throughout their careers.
Fernandez and Kim will join 354 past fellows in a diverse and dedicated alumni program that continues to serve as a source of support and intellectual stimulation long after the financial benefits of the Soros Fellowship end. Fernandez hopes to pursue an M.B.A. and one day serve as the chief scientific officer of a biotech company, applying both his knowledge of business and his understanding of science.
For now, Kim sees himself pursing cancer-related research during his time at Yale. “Cancer is interesting because it’s not a foreign agent that makes the body sick. These cancer cells are still human; they’re just misbehaving,” said Kim. He is intrigued by the challenges of creating drugs that target those misbehaving cells without harming healthy cells. And while his father has long since recovered from his battle with cancer, Kim still feels a personal conviction to continue the fight against the disease. “Cancer research engages me on an intellectual as well as a personal level.”