Law and Med school student wins Soros Fellowship

By Tim Michaels

Nirav Shah, a student attending both the University Law School and the Pritzker School of Medicine, is the latest recipient of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, and the first student from either school to win the award.

The announcement, made last month, awarded 30 fellowships to “New Americans” across the country that have achieved high levels of leadership in a variety of fields.

The Soros Fellowship, established in 1997, is designed to help students who are immigrants or the children of immigrants to finance their graduate education, and is funded by a $50 million trust from philanthropists Paul and Daisy Soros. There were 84 finalists from more than 1,500 applicants in this year’s pool, of which 30 students were named Soros fellows.

Shah’s application focused on his previous work with healthcare reform in Cambodia. Working as the chief economist for the National Institute of Public Health in Phnom Penh from 2002 to 2003, Shah battled corruption in the country’s healthcare system.

“I wanted to reduce the 13 steps it took to grant money to hospital, and therefore decrease the possibilities for corruption” Shah said. “As a foreigner trying to address problems of governance, I didn’t want to paint corruption as merely a moral problem. I tried to offer solutions that advocated institutional reform and transparent governance,” he said. Continuing with such themes, Shah plans to use his financial stipend to return to Cambodia this summer to work on reforming the judiciary system at the appellate court level.

It was Shah’s work in Cambodia that largely influenced his decision to study both law and medicine. “I learned that doctors and lawyers speak very different languages, and I wanted to learn both of those languages, to help learn how to broker compromise and understanding between the two fields,” Shah said.

Many members of the University community helped Shah with the arduous application process. Richard Epstein, the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law, provided guidance throughout the application process. “Nirav may be the eighth wonder of the world; terrific energy, good insights, and [an] ideal winner,” Epstein said.

Holly Humphrey, M.D., dean for medical education and professor at Pritzker, also advised Shah on the application. “Nirav has a very compelling track record of success in his work done in Cambodia, which has really influenced his life and his decision,” Humphrey said.

For Shah, the fellowship not only celebrates his own accomplishment, but also the accompishments of his parents. “What makes this award unique is that it celebrates the risks my parents took coming to the United States from India,” Shah said. “This country has been built on the contribution of immigrants to American society.” The fellowship also recognizes the accomplishments of immigrants despite recent increases in anti-immigration legislation. “The real problem with anti-immigration law is that it keeps the Yo-Yo Mas out of the world,” Shah said. “The Soros recognizes the incredible contribution still being made by immigrants today.”

University faculty hope Shah’s success will help make the University a place for future Soros Fellowships contenders. “I hope that this is the beginning of a wonderful, long-term relationship with a very important fellowship program,” Humphrey said.

“I was truly surprised that I had been chosen and it easily could have been different,” Shah said. “I really want to encourage as many students to apply as possible, and I would love to talk about the process with any one who is interested.”