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P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans

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Q&A: MD Student Cecil Benitez Looks Back At The Fellowship

  • Cecil Benitez
The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans provides two years of funding for outstanding graduate students who are immigrants and children of immigrants. After two years the Fellows join a lifelong community of past Fellows. We asked Cecil Benitez, a 2015 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow, to look back at the first two years of the Fellowship and what they have meant to her.
 
Born in the state of Durango, Mexico, Cecil and her mother came to the United States hoping to flee economic hardships when Cecil was nine years old. In California, Cecil adjusted to life as an undocumented immigrant, as well as to a new school system, and a new set of challenges at home. Her school encouraged her to pursue a trade school, but Cecil’s love of science propelled her toward college. Her senior year, Cecil’s dream came true; her family received residency. She graduated valedictorian from her high school, and was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Cecil graduated from UCLA and went on to earn a PhD in developmental biology at Stanford University, where she was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship. 
 

Why did you apply to The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans?

After completing my PhD, I was looking to fund my medical education at Stanford University. I had given up an all-expense paid scholarship at another medical school, but believed in the mission and the resources that Stanford provides and knew it could help me reach my goal of becoming a leader in medicine. Having met a previous Fellow, I knew that PD Soros was a highly competitive fellowship program as it provides significant funding (up to $90k over two years). As I continued to learn more about the Fellowship and read the bios of previous Fellows, I was wishful that I could become part of such a great fellowship. This fellowship was rare in that I was not just applying for financial assistance but I was applying to be part of a lifelong family. 

You’re now finishing up the second year of the program. Has the Fellowship been what you expected?

The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans has exceeded my expectations—and I came in with high expectations. I applied because of the financial assistance and, most importantly, I wanted to be part of the PD Soros community. Current and past Fellows told me that you gain a new family as a new PD Soros Fellow and I did not understand it until I went to the PD Soros Fall Conference. Instantly, our class bonded over shared experiences as New Americans. The Fellows in my class and in other classes have provided me with immense personal support. Also, previous Fellows have provided with invaluable career advice—not because they feel obligated but because they care that I reach my greatest potential. I know that I can reach out to any Fellow in any class and feel welcomed and supported. This is a unique fellowship and everyday I am grateful that I applied.

Do you have any favorite memories from your Fellowship experience?

My favorite memories have been the PD Soros Fall Conferences. The PD Soros staff plans everything to perfection. From great keynote speakers to watching Hamilton, this is a rare opportunity with dedicated time to bond with our fellowship class and other Fellows. It is this opportunity that sets up my fondest Fellowship experience—the day after the 2016 presidential election. I was in my internal medicine rotation, away from my family and my friends, in a high stress environment where we were learning and expected to take care of patients. As a new immigrant from Mexico and in a setting where I was a minority, I felt alone—until I saw the text messages from my fellowship class on our group thread. Whatever our reactions were, we supported one another. We shared our fears, our expectations, and plans to forge ahead—to continue to reach for the American dream and protect our most vulnerable populations. It was my PD Soros fellowship class and another Fellow from a class ahead of me that provided me with much needed solace from the uncertainty about the direction of our nation.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of applying?

Apply. The application is long and can feel intimidating especially when you read the bios of other Fellows. There were many points during the application that I doubted my chances. But the application is structured to give you the best opportunity to showcase who you really are and what is important to you. You are not just a list of accomplishments. This application is a rare opportunity to reflect on yours and/or your parent’s immigrant story. This is one of the few applications that challenged me to my inner core. After I submitted my application I was proud not because I thought I was going to be selected but because I pushed myself to a vulnerable space and tried my best to best represent me—flaws and all. I also had a greater appreciation of the strength it took for my mom to leave her native country alone to come to the US to build a better life for me. Whether you get the scholarship or not, be proud of your journey. It is a competitive process, but the process is worth every minute on multiple levels. Apply.

How do you plan to stay active with the Fellowship community in the years to come?

Yes, I definitely plan to stay active in the Fellowship community. I plan to attend local events and help plan future events with other Fellows. As an active Fellow, I am excited to recruit future Fellowship applicants and more than happy to answer any questions. I hope to review applications and interview candidates in future years.