These two Twin Cities children of immigrants just won $90K scholarships

Side by side portraits of a young woman and man
Portraits of Philsan Isaak and Steven Truong, the two Minnesota born and raised scholars selected for the 2023 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship cohort.
Courtesy of Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans

Two young Minnesotans — Philsan Isaak and Steven Truong — are among thirty people nationwide to receive prestigious fellowships worth up to $90,000 each this year.

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans are intended to invest in immigrants and the children of immigrants who are “poised to make significant contributions to US society, culture or their academic field.”

It includes up to $90,000 in funding for graduate studies and mentorship from a network of high-achieving new Americans. Past fellows include U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and award-winning author Kao Kalia Yang.

This year, the 30 fellows were chosen from a pool of nearly 2,000 applicants.

Philsan Isaak, 19, is the daughter of Somali immigrants. She graduated early from the University of Minnesota last year with a bachelor’s degree in political science, and is now pursuing her J.D. at Yale University with the hopes of working for a large human rights organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.

Isaak said seeing her parents’ home country Somalia re-enforced her interest in international law.

“Going back there and seeing the situation that a lot of the Global South is in, it’s difficult to look at domestic law as the end all be all and the solution to all problems when there’s so much that goes on beyond our borders and, honestly, so much that goes on within our borders that impacts things beyond our borders,” she said.

Steven Truong was born and raised in the Twin Cities, where his parents settled after escaping Vietnam following the war. Now 25, he has already received several degrees in biological sciences and writing. Truong is currently in an eight-year combined M.D. and Ph.D. program at Stanford University so his work uncovering the root causes of diabetes can be informed by experiences with patients and in the lab.

Truong said his passion for science stems from his love for “Stars Wars” and “Spider Man.” He’s been particularly motivated to address high rates of undiagnosed diabetes in Asian people since the death of his father years ago. That led him to start Vietnam’s largest genome-wide association study as a college freshman, having noticed its population was underrepresented in useful medical datasets.

“It's very exciting, very interesting,” he said, sharing about studying metabolism for its insight on diabetes. “But also personally very meaningful, because it's this thing that has always been a part of my family, that's always been a part of a lot of households of people who look like me. There's this huge intersection of things like Asian American health and diabetes that I really want to explore.”

Engineer-turned-wealthy entrepreneur Paul Soros and his wife Daisy launched the fellowship in 1998 given their own origins as immigrants from Hungary. Paul Soros was the older brother of billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

“Our country is built on the notion that immigrants bring great things to this country and we really want to support that ideal,” said Craig Harwood, director of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships.

Harwood said the program looks for individuals with a creative approach to their field.

The fellowship has provided more than $80 million in funding in its 25-year history, according to a news release announcing this year’s fellows.

“It has been a joy to see how our Fellows leverage their education over the years to make a deep impact across communities. I’m delighted to welcome this year’s Fellowship class. As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of Paul’s passing, it is beautiful to see how his legacy lives on through every Fellow,” shared Daisy Soros in the release.

Both Truong and Isaak said the funding is an incredibly helpful financial relief, but the biggest benefit has been the community.

“We’re all sort of bonded as new Americans. That is invaluable, like that is incredible. And there’s also the more intangible, and perhaps larger impact, that is just expanding your mental horizons and seeing what other incredible people are doing at incredible institutions,” said Isaak.

Correction (May 25, 2023): An earlier version of this story stated an incorrect amount of money the fellowships have provided. It has been updated.

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