NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Two Rutgers alumni, each with personal commitments to addressing critical social needs, will advance their causes through graduate study supported by the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.Natalie Jesionka and Mike Alvarez, who both graduated in 2007, have immigrant roots and a firsthand appreciation for the economic and social opportunities that American society provided them and their families.
Jesionka is a first-generation American and the daughter of Polish immigrants. She aims to raise public awareness about human trafficking and promote programs and policies to fight it. Alvarez – who emigrated with his family from the Philippines when he was 10 – wants to advance knowledge of mental illness and suicide and promote an empathic understanding of those who suffer from depression and other psychiatric disorders.
They are among 30 students nationwide this year and the first from Rutgers in New Brunswick to earn Paul and Daisy Soros fellowships, a program that funds graduate study at a U.S. university for children of naturalized citizens or for immigrants who have become permanent residents or naturalized citizens themselves.
Jesionka graduated from Rutgers with a bachelor’s degree in journalism; Alvarez earned his in psychology. Jesionka also has a master’s degree in global affairs from Rutgers University-Newark, and Alvarez two master’s degrees from Goddard College in Vermont. Alvarez recently began his doctoral studies in communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.The fellowships were established by Paul and Daisy Soros, philanthropists and Hungarian immigrants who recognized the need to assist young new Americans at critical points in their education. The late Paul Soros wanted to pursue an advanced education but had few resources to do so. A defector from Communist-controlled Hungary, he struggled to pay for meals and housing as a graduate student in engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.
Soros’s investment paid off – he established an international engineering firm, earned professional accolades and served on corporate boards and government panels. He and Daisy, who came to this country on a student visa and pursued a career in social work, established the fellowships in 1997 with a $50 million contribution followed with another $25 million in 2010.
Jesionka teaches human rights courses at Rutgers University-Newark and Gateway College in New York City. Through her teaching, writing and filmmaking, she raises awareness about human trafficking and promotes the need for programs and policies to fight it. She is producing a documentary film about human trafficking in Northern Thailand – her research focus while studying at Rutgers.
“This is a hot issue in America right now,” said Jesionka, recalling the high-profile media coverage of efforts to thwart trafficking when the Super Bowl was held in northern New Jersey. “There’s a myth that people are rounded up and trafficked just for sports events. Trafficking happens every year, everywhere, in every single country. We need to look at this issue long-term, not just when it’s trendy.”
Jesionka’s father emigrated from Poland as a child and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He met his future wife while visiting extended family in Poland. They corresponded by letter for a year – “there was no Skype, snap chat or texting,” said Jesionka. One summer, he invited her to visit him, and she was able to get a coveted visa for the trip. While here, he proposed. She eventually became a naturalized citizen.
“My mom told me stories of growing up in Poland,” said Jesionka. “She told me those stories because she wanted me to explore and to learn.” Jesionka recalls watching television news with her parents as Communism was ending in Europe, which triggered her fascination with global affairs. She pursued her interest at Middlesex High School, where she started a chapter of Amnesty International. Today she serves on the board of directors of Amnesty International USA.
“The Soros story deeply resonates with me,” Jesionka said. “It’s a story of the American dream and finding ways to make it in America.” She hopes to do graduate work in sociology at The New School for Social Research in New York City, and possibly add studies in public policy.
Alvarez studies the portrayal of suicide in films of many genres, including silent films, horror and science fiction/fantasy and how advances in technology prevent and promote suicidal behavior. Suicide pacts among young people and strangers who find each other online are increasing, while, at the same time, online communities also have been helpful in thwarting attempted suicides.
These research areas are more than academic for Alvarez, who during his time at Rutgers battled depression and required hospitalization during his junior year for a suicide attempt. At the time, he viewed his study of psychology as both a field of intellectual inquiry and a refuge for self-understanding. During his senior year as a Henry Rutgers Scholar, he researched the lives of three artists who committed suicide and received his department’s Charles F. Flaherty Award for the most outstanding thesis and overall performance in the honors program.
Alvarez was born in the Philippines and came with his parents and two brothers to the United States in 1995. His father left the family a few months after they moved to what he remembers as a rough neighborhood in Jersey City.
“My brothers and I tried to find part-time jobs, just so we could all make ends meet,” he said, recalling how his mother juggled jobs as a dancer, a jewelry store clerk and a receptionist.
“At the same time, we persevered,” he said. “We came here with the typical dream of migrants for better opportunities. We believed that there really was a bright future here.”
Alvarez earned a master of arts degree in individualized studies in 2010 and a master of fine arts in creative writing in 2013, both from Goddard College. He appreciates the support that the fellowship will provide him to continue his doctoral studies.
“From my impression, I’m one of very few social science doctoral students to get this award,” he said, “and I may be the first communication scholar.” After completing his studies, he hopes to pursue a faculty position at a university that supports his interdisciplinary teaching and research interests.
About the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships
The fellowships provide tuition and living expenses for as much as $90,000 over two academic years in any graduate program at a U.S. university. Since the first class of fellows was appointed in 1998, 415 students have participated.
“The mission of the Paul and Daisy Soros fellowship program is to make its award a kind of American Rhodes scholarship,” said Arthur D. Casciato, director of the university’s Office of Distinguished Fellowships. “Winning it lifts Rutgers into the highest level of national competition for graduate fellowships.”
Two people affiliated with Rutgers have won Paul and Daisy Soros fellowships in previous years. Shah Ali won the fellowship in 2010 as a second-year medical student at Stanford University. He graduated Rutgers University-Newark in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Gerardo Vildostegui won in 2003 as a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Law-Camden.
Natalie Jesionka and Mike Alvarez are just two of our outstanding students. Meet more of our national award winners here.