THE BLOG
01/08/2014 12:47 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

Breaking Away

Bess Hanish immigrated into American life from inside the walls of her family's home in California. When we first spoke with Bess, now a law student at Berkeley, she said, "I'm not really doing anything remarkable." Her humility alone is remarkable, but there's so much more. Her unique story illustrates both how diverse our culture actually is, and how hard it can be for some Americans to enter the mainstream. Bess was raised as part of a highly insular Yemeni community in Bakersfield, California.

"I grew up in Bakersfield. It's like Pawnee, in Parks and Recreation. We were one of the ten least educated cities in the U.S. according to one survey. My parents came into the U.S. from an Arab background to an area that isn't well-educated."

And that was only her experience in the school system. When she reached the sixth grade, her parents pulled her out of the public schools and confined her at home for three years. There was no home schooling. She was a girl and was expected to marry an eligible young Yemeni man in her teens. She did housework and cooked.

"I began to be a menace," she says, laughing often as she recalls her struggles. "I used to be a street rat, which is what we called ourselves. I'd go out and play and climb trees and be a tomboy, but all of a sudden I was trapped. I didn't even step outside. If I went out, I'd have to go to an all-Yemeni women's party. I argued with them all to them. Talking back to the boys. I was always the one speaking too much. It was like, this girl is crazy, and how do you deal with crazy, you can't! They tried to marry me off, and I would not let that happen. That was the norm. From the age of 12 or 13 there were people I could get married to. My older sister got married at 15 and my cousin got married at 13. This all goes on here in the U.S."

She convinced her parents to let her enter high school, and worked hard to catch up: taking six math classes in three years. She did well and graduated from high school and then started thinking about college. Surfing the Web, she came across the site for Amherst College. "Oh that school's cute and it has a lot of financial aid. Perfect," she says, laughing at her naïveté. She wrote to say she'd love to enroll. They tolerantly wrote back saying they'd already admitted their class for that year, but that she could enter a community college and then transfer. She found one in Southern California with a good transfer rate and left home with a backpack in the middle of the night.

She took a job waiting tables, enrolled in classes, got involved in student government, and shared an apartment with three other students. When Amherst finally accepted her, she realized how ill-prepared she was. That first year, she lost 20 pounds struggling to keep up, having no writing skills, having to learn how to study and write as she went along. After her first year, she got internships at both the White House and the State Department and went to Washington, appraising gifts to the president from heads of state and VIPs, ghost-writing thank you notes from Obama to Nicolas Sarkozy and many others. She studied abroad for one semester, learning Arabic in Jordan. She earned a Truman Scholarship. At Amherst, she became someone known for her achievements. Now she's in law school at University of California, Berkeley, and she's been awarded a Soros Fellowship to cover her expenses and connect her with a network of other students who are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship singles out exceptional immigrant students (including children of immigrants), who have the ability and desire to handle an advanced education. It chooses those who show the most promise of becoming leaders who will give back to their communities and their nation.

"I'm glad something like Soros exists. I'm part of these great networks. My pre-law program is my favorite thing I've ever done. I'm really glad that Soros finds people with similar backgrounds so that you can bond to a degree you couldn't with peers in other programs. I want to work in government, maybe the Department of Justice, and see changes happening in multiple areas. Women and gender issue are something I'm passionate about. I also think it would be nice for the Yemeni community to have someone who looks like them do different things. I'm tutoring a 21-year-old woman about the nature of a thesis and how to make a topic paragraph: basic writing. My older sister, after getting married in her teens and having three children is back in school. My cousin is 26 and she's back in community college. I'm hoping all my bugging has made a difference," she says, laughing again. "If it's some TV commercial that convinced them I'd be pretty sad."

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. Follow him on Twitter.