The 'secret society' of extremely successful first gens

The band Thousand Days

Pardis Sabeti is the lead singer of Thousand Days.

Courtesy of Sarahmica Photography.

Paul and Daisy Soros Fellows share a common trait: They are exceptionally driven to succeed in a unique way that they feel benefits America the most.

In that way, they follow in the path of their creator. Paul Soros was a young Jewish man who came of age in Nazi-occupied Hungary and survived using a false identity. He later defected from Russian-occupied Hungary by concealing an ankle injury to get on the country's Olympic ski team, which was going to the 1948 Winter Games in Switzerland.

Paul used his passport instead to go to Austria, and spent nearly a year there becoming a tennis pro before his student visa to the US came through. He arrived with less than $20 and a camera. Paul was accepted to MIT and Stanford, but decided on a school in Brooklyn, because he didn't have enough money. 

“He always told me if somebody just would have kind of given him $10,000 at that time his whole life would have been totally different,” Daisy says. “He lived like on $8 a week, which means for lunch you had an apple and, you know, it was just a very hand-to-mouth existence. Which he wasn’t necessarily used to. And he lived in Brooklyn in the rented room, which he decided must have been a bordello. Because it had red velvet on the walls and mirrors on the ceiling.”

Paul, whose younger brother is the well-known George Soros, always regretted being limited by money at that time in his life, even after he met Daisy, married, had sons and made a fortune building shipping ports around the world. In 1997, when Daisy said to Paul over breakfast that they should do something philanthropic with their money, he responded with the idea of fellowships to pay for graduate school for immigrants and kids of immigrants. Fellows wouldn't be chosen by race or financial need.

“It's just I think more a philosophy than anything else because if it's based on need, it's a sob story,” Daisy says.

There are now 550 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellows, many of whom are friends or have married. They’re a community, Daisy says. And they share a gratitude to their parents for bringing them to America, and a gratitude for being American.

“I think that is something that unites the immigrant experience,” says 2000 Soros fellow Andrei Cherny, the youngest White House speechwriter ever. “The idea that we are so blessed to become part of the United States and that with that opportunity comes a set of responsibilities.”

Soros fellows have that sense of responsibility across race, age and profession, says law professor Jeannie Suk, a 2001 Soros fellow and the first Asian American woman tenured at Harvard University.

“It's very difficult for me not to fixate sometimes on the contingency of life even as I'm putting all my effort into making the most out of the things that I have,” she says.

The sense of responsibility, and the “contingency of life,” drives Suk to write articles in the New Yorker about controversial issues like transgender bathrooms and campus sexual assault, despite wrathful responses from people on the internet. Her friend Pardis Sabeti, across the Harvard campus, pours her life into her students.

“Pardis is is beloved by her students,” Suk says."She just gives her soul and her life to training students and supporting them and bringing up people who need to be mentored.”

Sabeti loves to “drop truth” on her sudents and help them “self-actualize.” But that’s actually selfish of her, she says. “That's how I believe I will actually have a lasting impact — just by investing in the people who are smarter and better and more creative than I am.”

And that’s coming from someone who is said to have revolutionized the way people think about genetics. In 2002, Sabeti defied people who thought she was crazy and discovered a radically different way of charting development in genes — basically through an algorithm. Overnight, she was famous. Harvard gave her her own lab and her own team of researchers. Her discovery led her to more breakthroughs about how pathogens evade destruction by the human immune system.

In 2014, during the Ebola outbreak, Sabeti went to West Africa and found the virus was spreading from person to person, not through contact with insects or animals. It was a crucial victory, even as Sabeti lost friends and colleagues to the illness. She recorded a song in tribute to them with her band, Thousand Days. A year later, Sabeti was in Montana giving a speech on the future of genetics when she took a tour in an ATV. It hit a curb, ran into some trees and flipped her into boulders. She waited 45 minutes for rescuers.

Sabeti had shattered almost every bone in her body. She spent months staring at a wall, recovering, and thinking how eerily reminicent her accident was to one her father had when she was a child. A car flew across a highway median and hit him head-on. Sabeti’s mother became her father’s full-time caregiver. But Sabeti never really understood the extent of what her father went through, because he never complained.

“Whereas, I'll be honest with you, I was like ‘why me.’ Like, I was crying to anyone ‘how did this happen to me,” she says. “I mean, I have some weak moments.”

They were both “the luckiest of the unlucky,” Sabeti says — lucky and unlucky enough to be among the rare people who live through their injuries. 

Sabeti's father had a been a high ranking official in the Iranian Shah’s government, and fled with his family two years before the revolution. At the time, Sabeti was 2. She grew up in Florida, a weird little kid who liked math and loved sharing a room with her aunt and grandmother. She was the kind of kid who cried when boys in her neighborhood killed crickets.

“Why would anyone kill crickets, like what are they doing and why is this happening?” she remembers writing on the tear-stained page of a rarely used journal. “My sister often says that kind of explains me.”

So like anyone who feels a lot, Sabeti is still processing what comes after an accident that made her question her purpose in life.

“What doesn't kill you — it doesn't make you stronger, but it gives you empathy and it gives you perspective and it gives you this humility and gratitude,” she says. “Any of these kinds of  humbling experiences are really powerful.”

Pardis still retains the gratitude she’s had her whole life that she got to grow up in America and become the person she wanted to become. The accident, and the long, long recovery, have only reinforced her resolve to live up to that opportunity by — as corny as it sounds — giving back.

For more stories like this, subscribe to Otherhood on iTunes — or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Look for Otherhood on Facebook and tweet to Rupa, @RupaShenoy.

Will you help our nonprofit newsroom today?

Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.

Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?