We have a lot of different feelings about immigrants. Once, we wanted to be a magnet for people fleeing other places. We wanted their energy, their desperate desire to make good. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. That was the spirit of the thing. It used to be our invitation to the rest of the world.
These days, not so much.
This week the Senate of the United States will commence debate on an immigration law. It's a critical issue for America and all Americans. Personally, I think it's cause for celebration if we can reach a fair and wise solution to our immigration challenge. It's beyond time we address openly an issue which is both economically and morally vital to a better America. I leave it to Congress to do its job and hope for a comprehensive and intelligent outcome. I trust in Congress because this country let me in, of all people, once upon a time. I came here at the age of 15 without speaking a word of English. Not exactly a highly qualified job applicant. Yet this extraordinary nation enabled me to succeed as a human being and in business. And you know what? I was given a chance to be the best person I could be, and I rose to become CEO of Young & Rubicam.
There are millions and millions of immigrants who have arrived here and helped America become a beacon of freedom and opportunity. With the exception of Native Americans, we all can trace our lineage back to immigrants.
One particular pair of them, to my mind, stands out: an extraordinary couple who arrived in this country right after the Second World War, in their twenties. They both came to complete their studies in this country. They were strangers to each other even though they had arrived as refugees from Hungary, both who survived Nazi persecution. And they were just one step ahead of the next reign of terror in the Eastern European nations -- the Communist brutality which would last another forty-five years and which played a part in my own childhood.
Daisy was tall, elegant and beautiful when she met Paul Soros, a brilliant young man and exceptional skier and tennis player. They met through one of New York City's premier melting pots for young immigrants who were pursuing graduate studies -- the International House. (It is still around and thriving today, serving the needs of many deserving young people). They fell in love and married around 60 years ago. Paul Soros got accepted at Stanford and MIT, but he couldn't afford to go to either. So he accepted a scholarship to the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn. He matriculated from their graduate program as an engineer. His extraordinary career took him to build his own company, which would become one of the most successful builders of ports in the world.
Daisy Soros has become one of New York City's most prolific philanthropists. Her involvement in supporting culture in this city is truly exceptional. So is her commitment to our healthcare and her support of Weill Cornell Medical School and its affiliated New York Presbyterian Hospital.
Like many other successful immigrants, Paul and Daisy wanted to do something for other people who have come to these shores. In 1997, they created The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. They wanted to find people who, like them, had the ability and desire to handle an advanced education, but needed the sort of financial help that wasn't available to them when they came here. And it was a reciprocal proposition: a gift to encourage a giving back. The young candidates would have to demonstrate promise that their chosen careers would make their communities and their new country become better. The field of study didn't matter. They had to simply show a likelihood of becoming leaders and contributors. The second criteria was equally important. The candidates had to have an understanding and respect for the principles and values of this unique nation: freedom and individual rights. The principles which have enabled legal immigrants to thrive and succeed in this nation like in no other. And they found a multitude of exceptional young men and women who have succeeded in amazing ways, partly because they were helped by these fellowships. (To qualify for the support they have to have been an immigrant or have one parent who is.)
The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship program, with an endowment of more than $90 million, selects 30 applicants for up to $90,000 to cover education costs and expenses over two years. The pool of candidates is remarkable. Around 1,000 qualified candidates apply annually. First they are evaluated on their extensive written applications and are narrowed down to 80 finalists, interviewed in person. Only 30 are selected.
I first became involved with the program about ten years ago. I began as an interviewer of these exceptional women and men. My annual day of interviews is the highlight of my year. I love it and look forward to meeting these young people with genuine anticipation. At times, I've been in tears, hearing the stories of hard work and sacrifices these men and women and their parents endured in order to get into this country and find a better future for the next generation. These exceptional young people have no sense of entitlement. Most come from countries still struggling for what we have taken for granted for so long we're hardly aware of our rare blessings: freedom and opportunity. They are the people who continue to epitomize the classic American dream. They and millions of immigrant Americans like them are a reason one can look at America with hope and optimism.
Paul and Daisy Soros have written an important chapter on why American immigrants can continue to give back in return for the amazing opportunities afforded here to all of us who came here from somewhere else to find a life.
In the weeks ahead, I will tell you some of the truly amazing success stories of these young men and women. Their stories in music, law, medicine, science and more are genuinely inspirational.
Meanwhile, let me take this opportunity to salute Daisy and Paul Soros. Two new Americans who are giving back to their country. Two immigrants who remembered how they got started. Two Americans who love their adopted nation, believe in its bright future, and invest heavily in its well-being.
Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.