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Rackham student Cherline Bazile won the 2019 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, making her one of 30 students across the country to be selected for the scholarship. The PD Soros Fellowship offers $90,000 to high-achieving immigrants or children of immigrants to pursue a graduate degree in any field of study in the United States. Since its founding in 1997, 12 University of Michigan graduates have been selected for the award.
Bazile, who was raised by Haitian immigrants in Florida, earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Harvard University before coming to the University. Currently, she is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and is in the process of writing a novel.
Bazile said she is grateful for the support system that helped give her strength to succeed, especially because systemic barriers like poverty and lack of opportunity often stand in the way of many immigrants or first-generation students seeking higher education.
“I know a lot of people who just simply don’t know what’s possible or what they’re allowed and what they deserve, and that’s part of what we’re being told from the media, from the government,” Bazile said. “ ... I think ‘opportunity’ is a very loaded word — sometimes people see it as, ‘Everybody should pull themselves up from your bootstraps, everybody should be able to do it,’ and I think that’s very harmful and very wrong because some people have legitimate blockages to that.”
Paul and Daisy Soros, Jewish immigrants from Hungary, founded the fellowship to offer other immigrants and first-generation Americans opportunities to pursue higher education. Henry Dyson, director of the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships, said the Soros family’s generosity continues to embody the values of the fellowship.
“They were part of a generation of Jewish immigrants that came to New York from Europe and found a new home there and were able to contribute vitally,” Dyson said. “I think that’s the heart of the Soros fellowship: the recognition that it’s successive waves of immigrants and children of immigrants that have really been major contributors towards the vitality and the drive and the creativity and the ingenuity of American industry and finance and culture.”
According to a press release from Craig Harwood, director of the PD Soros Fellowship, the applicant pool for the 2019 cohort included more than 1,700 candidates, resulting in a 1.7 percent selection rate. The fellows originate from 19 countries and join distinguished past awardees like Fei-Fei Li, co-director of Stanford University’s Stanford Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence Institute, and Abdul El-Sayed, a University alum who ran as a Democratic candidate in Michigan’s 2018 gubernatorial primary election.
To be considered for the award, applicants must provide documentation showing that both parents were born outside of the U.S. as non-U.S. citizens. The PD Soros Fellowship requires applicants to submit three letters of recommendation and two essays describing what the scholarship would mean to them and why they are pursuing their chosen field of study.
Bazile attributed her success to her own work, but stressed how important it was for her to have supportive friends and family members during the application process.
“I do work hard, so (the awards) are often a product of the work I do, but also the people around me,” Bazile said. “I had a group of friends and we had a day where everyone would read my essays, and they’ve seen my essays for grad school, my essays for the fellowship, and probably some of them know the narratives more than I do. Not everybody has that, so I feel so lucky to have people in my life who are genuinely happy for me when good things come my way.”
Law School student Akash Patel, a 2016 recipient of the PD Soros Fellowship, said the scholarship is unique in that it provides awardees a similar kind of tight-knit community that stays with them once they’ve completed their graduate programs.
“Once you’re in, you get to be part of this really large immigrant family,” Patel said. “And it really feels like it and they really treat you like it. I feel like it’s something that people feel themselves, it’s something that the organization intentionally tries to cultivate and I definitely feel personally.”
Dyson said while applicants must have impressive qualifications and thoughtful essays to be considered for the fellowship, the selection ultimately comes down to fit. He noted how Bazile’s unique position as an MFA student, in addition to her passion for storytelling, made her an ideal applicant for the PD Soros Fellowship specifically.
“Her ability to really quickly grasp that narrative fit and to tell her story in a confident and compelling way I think was a big part of it,” Dyson said. “So there’s actually an advantage of being an MFA applicant — what she does contributed I think in a fairly direct way to why she was such a fantastic interviewee for it.”
Patel, who advised Bazile during the application process, said he had faith she would win and highlighted how important it is for more awardees to come from states with large immigrant populations like Michigan.
“I was so excited when I heard that Cherline had won and not at all surprised,” Patel said. “I had met her before and we talked about applying, talked about her story and the application process and I told her this — and I firmly believed it as I do now — that she was definitely going to win. Cherline is a very special person who you can tell is meant to do honestly incredible things. She’s very talented and very passionate.”
Bazile said her status as a first-generation American and her mother’s dedication to providing a better life for her children continues to inform who she is and the work she produces. The PD Soros application essays led Bazile to ask her mother about her story for the first time. Bazile said she learned more about how the immigrant experience is part of who she is.
“A lot of immigrants are like, ‘My parents came for a better life for me,’ and I thought that I was no different,” Bazile said. “But my mom wasn’t really thinking about me at all — I wasn’t born yet, so that was surprising to me. But what was not surprising was that my mom made her way by hustling. I think that’s at the core of who she is and it’s also at the core of who I am. So there’s something in that that still feels very true.”