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P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans

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Q&A: Law School Graduate Matt Nguyen Looks Back At The Fellowship

  • Matt Nguyen

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 Matt Nguyen, a 2017 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow, to look back at the first two years of the Fellowship and what they have meant to him.

Matt Nguyen’s parents fled Vietnam as child refugees at the height of the Vietnam War. Arriving in America with minimal English and pennies to their name, they lived in resettlement camps before making California their home. Through their own perseverance and the support of generous social programs that gave them the opportunity to succeed, Matt’s parents built a better life for themselves and their families. Born and raised in California, and grateful for his parents’ sacrifices, Matt has dedicated his career to empowering everyday Californians through teaching, policy advocacy, and constitutional rights litigation. Matt is a proud alumnus of Orange County public schools. He graduated salutatorian from the University of California, Berkeley, and earned his law degree from Yale Law School.

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

These past two years as a PD Soros Fellow have exceeded my wildest dreams. During our first Fall conference, Mrs. Daisy Soros told us that the PD Soros Fellowship is, above all else, a “fellowship with a heart.” At that time, I did not grasp the full magnitude of her words. But after these past two years, I now regard each and every member of my fellowship cohort as part of my own family. For while each of us is informed by our distinct family histories, fields of study, and career aspirations, we are chiefly united by our shared principles and our sustained commitments to give back to a country that has given so much to us and our families. The PD Soros Fellowship’s heart, it turns out, has brought us together in ways I never imagined.

As a New American, why has it been important to have The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships community?

As the son of refugees who fled the horrors of the Vietnam War, I have felt intimately the recent onslaught against vulnerable communities fleeing violence in search of freedom and prosperity. Especially in the current national political climate—where vitriolic discourse has been accompanied by a slate of anti-immigrant policies—the PD Soros community has offered an invaluable public counternarrative by proudly spotlighting the indelible contributions of immigrants and their children to our country. For me, the Fellowship community epitomizes the aspirational egalitarian values that countless past generations of Americans have sought to achieve and that we continue to strive for each and every day.

Do you have any favorite memories from the past two years as a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow?

As 2017 PD Soros Fellows, our cohort was the latest fellowship year to attend the PD Soros Fellowship’s 20 year reunion in 2018. The experience was truly unforgettable. With 300 PD Soros Fellows in attendance recounting our backgrounds and current pursuits, and sharing in our common bonds, I left that weekend more invigorated and inspired than ever.

Where are you with your law degree?

In the spring of 2019, I earned my Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School as the only student of Vietnamese descent in my graduating class. During this past year at Yale, I directed an education advocacy clinic, cofounded a constitutional rights coalition, designed nationally-recognized law clinic teaching curriculum, supported a national blueprint for immigration policy reform, taught torts and education law, and was a notes editor for the Yale Law Journal. Thanks to the PD Soros Fellowship’s financial support, I am fortunate to pursue my post-graduate career in public service freed from the weighty cloud of student loan debt. With this in mind, I now serve as a judicial law clerk for Justice Goodwin Liu on the Supreme Court of California, where I work to safeguard the rights of over 40 million Californians. In the long-term, I plan to continue mobilizing my law and policy experience to empower underserved communities across California.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of applying to The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans?

My advice to applicants: be true to yourself and your family’s history and cherish all the twists and turns that have brought you to where you are today. As immigrants or children of immigrants, we are often counseled by society to keep our heads down and conceal integral parts of our identities in order to fit in. As a result, we constantly navigate between disparate worlds, never fully belonging and only rarely having the opportunity to share our authentic selves with a receptive audience. The PD Soros Fellowship is that welcoming audience—one that cares deeply about knowing the full story of you, beyond simply the professional.