Warren Ilchman: 'Twilight Work' Brings Rich and Unexpected Rewards Print

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June 29, 2011:  A friend who is also a correspondent for MyhometownBronxville thought there might be some general interest in the "twilight work" from which I have just retired (June 1).

What do I mean by "twilight work"?  In our mid 60s, my wife, Alice, after many years as president of Sarah Lawrence, and I decided our careers were about to be over:  we had climbed the various rungs in our careers and had served on many search committees; we wanted people who were younger to have a chance; and we were no longer au courant in what we knew, since the agendas in the scholarly fields in which we once wrote had changed.  What to do?  What would be our "twilight work"?

We both decided we would involve ourselves in the work of giving fellowships and other experiences to undergraduate and graduate students.  Under the auspices of The Thomas J. Watson Foundation, Alice started a program that provides to fifteen students a year at eligible non-elite New York City colleges three summers of internships (as she would say, "work you can learn from").  The first summer was in the nonprofit sector, the second summer was in the for-profit sector, and the third summer was in the international arena.  The ninety students who had that experience before Alice's death in 2006 all found themselves more competitive for life's chances--work, other fellowships, and graduate education.  The vast majority of students were the first in their families to go to college, and, more often than not, they were immigrants or children of immigrants.

Assisting immigrants and the children of immigrants for their graduate work, from which I just retired, has also been my twilight work for the last thirteen-plus years.  From a $75,000,000 trust established in 1997 by Hungarian immigrants Paul and Daisy Soros, who wished to "give back" to the US for the opportunities the country had provided them and their children, a fellowship program was developed that supported thirty Soros Fellows each year for two years of their graduate education in any subject, anywhere in the US.  Called the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, the original two-year grant was $72,000; it is now $90,000.  I had the privilege of starting the program and directing it for fourteen selection periods.  There have been appointed from almost 16,000 applicants 415 Soros Fellows, of whom 320 have completed their graduate education.

The successful applicants are as diverse as American immigration is diverse.  They and their families hail from 84 different national origins, and they attended as undergraduates 125 different colleges and universities and 52 different institutions for their graduate education.  Full disclosure, however, requires me to say that most heavily represented are Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Mexicans, and Iranians (in that order).

Also, despite the large number of institutions represented for their education, there is a heavy representation from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley.  Finally, though there are Soros Fellows in many fields (e.g., 34 in the fine and performing arts and 31 in business), nearly half of the fellows were in the fields of law or medicine.  Why the latter?  These are the fields least supported by institutions and other fellowships; law and medical students are expected to self-invest by looking for their own opportunities for funding their education.

An assumption of the Soros family has been that immigrants and their children add quality to American life and they wished to demonstrate that over the decades.  Paul Soros's quip when he made the gift was, "Immigration laws can keep out people you don't want, but those same laws would keep out Yo-Yo Ma."  Has the assumption been borne out in this brief time of operation?

What conclusion might you draw from these facts:  they have written 48 books, have filed 42 patents, and have created 32 CDs of their works or performances; 10 have been clerks to the Supreme Court; there are 13 in the Obama Administration (White House, Justice, State, Health and Human Services, Defense, and Veterans Affairs); 14 are on the Harvard faculty (including our first full professor at Harvard Law School), and 3 each are on the faculty of MIT, Stanford, and Columbia; and they include the retiring CEO of the Chicago Public School system, the COO of Planned Parenthood Federation of the US, and three assistant attorneys general.  To prove that they are not single-mindedly professional:  there are 4 Olympic medalists (gymnastics and wrestling), and 20 have completed marathons!

One might wonder whether with such talent these immigrants and children of immigrants needed our support.  I think "yes" for three reasons.  First, given the scourge of student indebtedness, our $90,000 allowed more choice.  An MD, for example, could remain for a PhD or could contemplate global health or pediatrics as fields and not rush into radiology to pay off medical school debt.  A JD might serve a judicial clerkship (53% served as clerks) or become a public defender (4 are public defenders) and not rush off to a "white-shoe" law firm.  A scientist and engineer could shop around projects without committing her- or himself prematurely to secure financing.

Second, through an annual fall conference, each Soros Fellow came to know well at least 89 other Soros Fellows and 15 alumni Fellows.  This provided a noncompetitive community of well-wishers and mentors, something hard to find in this competitive world.

Third, Soros Fellows ceased to be ashamed that they were immigrants or children of immigrants.  They could see firsthand the contributions immigrants make to the quality of American life.

As for me, this "twilight work" could not have been better.

About the writer:  Dr. Warren Ilchman received a BA from Brown and a PhD from Cambridge University.  He has taught at Williams, Harvard, and Berkeley and was the dean of liberal arts at Boston University and executive vice president, SUNY at Albany.  Later he served as president of Pratt Institute and was director of the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy.