Philsan Isaak, 19, and Steven Truong, 25, both from Blaine, Minnesota, received Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. Credit: Courtesy Philsan Isaak and Steven Truong

Each year, the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans awards scholarships to 30 graduate students from around the country. This year, two of the recipients hail from a single town in Minnesota: Blaine.

Steven Truong, a graduate of Irondale High School who grew up between Blaine and St. Paul, received a fellowship for his M.D./Ph.D. studies at Stanford University. And Philsan Isaak, who graduated from Spring Lake Park High School at 17 and the University of Minnesota at 18, received a fellowship for her studies at Yale Law School. 

The fellowships provide up to $90,000 in funding for graduate students who are immigrants or children of immigrants. The fellowship was established in 1998 by Hungarian immigrants Paul and Daisy Soros to provide opportunities for new Americans to pursue advanced studies. 

The 30 winners were selected from nearly 2,000 applicants in a merit-based process that prioritizes candidates’ creativity, initiative, capacity for accomplishment, and promise for sustained contributions to American life. Past fellowship recipients include U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Julissa Reynoso, the U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra, and award-winning Minnesota author Kao Kalia Yang.

Truong said his parents were “boat people,” who fled war in Vietnam; Philsan’s parents were refugees from political violence in Somalia. In interviews, both said they were motivated by their parents’ experiences.

Truong expressed gratitude for Minnesota’s history of welcoming refugees. 

“I think that’s amazing, that the reason I’m here is because that spirit was there after the Vietnam War,” he said.

From science fiction to science

Steven Truong’s love of science started at the movie theater. Growing up, he and his dad went to the movies at least once a week. One time, he asked his dad to print out an image of Iron Man’s mask and taped it to his face. When they saw Thor, Truong took note of a reference to a quote by the British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

“I think interests in science fiction and fantasy, superheroes and all that kind of made me question myself: What actually is possible?” Truong recalled.

For Truong, 25, that means pushing the limits in both science and storytelling. As an undergraduate student at MIT, he started a project to screen the genomes of Vietnamese people. Now, he’s pursuing a joint M.D./Ph.D. at Stanford. And he still hopes to become a film director.

Anne Keirstead, a math teacher at Irondale High School, recalled the first time she realized Truong’s talents.

“Steven’s the kind of student that comes along maybe once or twice in a teaching career,” Keirstead said.

Truong enrolled in Advanced Placement Calculus I during his junior year, but by October, he decided he wanted to transfer to AP Calculus II, which Keirstead was teaching. She and another math teacher resolved that if he could ace a practice AP test—covering a full year of calculus instruction—they would approve the switch. He did.

“He basically taught himself Calc I, and then he taught himself the first two units of Calc II,” Keirstead said. “I don’t know how much I actually taught him versus him teaching himself.”

Truong’s parents—his mother runs a nail salon, and his father was a packaging designer—worried that he pushed himself too hard and did not sleep enough, Keirstead recalled. “But Steven just always was driven.”

Steven’s the kind of student that comes along maybe once or twice in a teaching career.

Anne Keirstead, Steven Truong’s High School math teacher

Truong decided he wanted to use his science skills to help people by treating diseases. He took a particular interest in diabetes, which affected many of his family members—including his dad.

“I remember him being so scared that he might die that he took me to Universal Studios, just so he could have his time with his son,” Truong said.

His father passed away while Truong was in college, studying engineering and creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Truong describes his father’s death as a “huge wakeup moment.”

Through his family experience, Truong saw a gap in both research and public health communication.

“There’s so little education around it,” he said. “Imagine telling my illiterate grandma, Grandma, you can’t eat rice. She’d rather die.”

Doctors might also miss warning signs of diabetes in Asian patients, Truong said. For example, he said, one study shows that South Asian patients often develop diabetes at lower body weights than white people. But doctors might not even screen them for it, because they tend to look for diabetes in patients with higher body weights. Even when Asian patients are diagnosed, treatments might not match a patient’s needs.

For his dad, Truong said, “All they did was just give him insulin, and it just made him sicker and sicker.” While insulin helps many patients with diabetes, he added, it was not the right treatment for his dad.

Yet no data had been collected on genomics—that is, the study of a person’s complete gene set—among Vietnamese people. That data could provide insights on how to treat diabetes and other conditions. So Truong approached MIT and proposed a research project.

“Can we just get more data? Can we get more samples from people in Vietnam?” he recalled thinking.

The project started out as a small grant from MIT, which allowed Truong and some collaborators to travel to Vietnam to screen the genomes of a few hundred people. Truong and his team then used their data to convince an agency in Vietnam to fund the project at a larger scale. That research is ongoing. Once it is published, Vietnam will be “on the playing ground” of genomics research, Truong said.

Now at Stanford, Truong is pursuing an eight-year educational track in which he’ll gain both a doctorate degree and the qualifications to practice medicine. But his first passion is still storytelling—and he doesn’t plan to lose sight of that, either.

“I love movies too much,” he said. “I want to be able to combine that with what I do in the lab and in the clinic. Hopefully what that translates to is, maybe one day I get to be a film director.”

The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship will help connect him with other fellows from immigrant backgrounds pursuing various fields—including screenwriting. Many of his peers at Stanford have parents who are doctors, or wealthy ancestors whose names adorn campus buildings. It’s helpful to build community with people who have similar family backgrounds and educational ambitions, he said. They are already connecting through a group chat.

“This cohort of fellows are immigrant kids who need that support, and we have each other’s backs,” he said.

‘You have to know the rules to play the game’

Philsan Isaak had no interest in law—until one day, her parents were late to pick her up from high school. Wandering the halls, she ran into a friend who asked her to come to the info session for the debate team.

“I’m not doing debate,” Philsan recalled telling her friend. Is your ride here yet? her friend asked. No, Philsan admitted. Come to the session, her friend said.

Andra Lindquist, who became Philsan’s speech coach at Spring Lake Park High School, was immediately struck by her new student. “She was the coolest human being I had ever met,” Lindquist said. “She would walk into my classroom and make everybody feel so comfortable and make everybody want to do great work. And then she would make you laugh about something absurd, and then she’d be gone.”

Philsan had previously planned on pursuing a career in science and technology; her mom has a doctorate in nursing practice. Debate changed all that. “I went to the session and absolutely fell in love with everyone there and fell in love with the program,” Philsan said. “And here I am now, because my ride was five minutes late.”

She realized she enjoyed researching a topic, thinking critically about it, learning to argue both sides of it, and expressing her findings in a speech. “At that point, it was incredibly clear to me that I had a skill set,” she said. “And it could lead to a career in law.” 

Now, at 19, Philsan is a first-year student at Yale Law School, where she hopes to develop the skills for a career in international human rights law. 

She would walk into my classroom and make everybody feel so comfortable and make everybody want to do great work.

Andra Lindquist, Philsan Isaak’s high school speech coach

She earned Advanced Placement credits early in her high school career, and then spent her last two years of high school enrolled full-time at the University of Minnesota through Post-Secondary Enrollment Options. Altogether, she had three years of college credit completed by the time she graduated high school. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota at 18, one year after graduating from high school.

“I will be a PSEO dual-enrollment advocate to the day I die,” Philsan said. “I think that it does so, so much to give you so, so many options.”

Though she spent her high school junior and senior years taking classes at the University of Minnesota, she continued her extracurricular activities, like speech and debate, at Spring Lake Park.

Lindquist often coached students one-on-one as they practiced their individual speeches. “Somehow Philsan was always there, even when it wasn’t her time to work,” Lindquist said. “She was there giving feedback and supporting someone.”

As a result, Lindquist said, Philsan helped the fledgling team gel. “She had a huge impact on morale,” Lindquist said.

A family flight from genocide in Somalia

While taking classes at the University of Minnesota, Philsan developed an interest in international relations and international law. She also started thinking about how these concepts apply to her own family’s story. Her parents fled Somalia because of the Isaaq genocide, she explained.

“It’s widely recognized as a civil war. What is forgotten in all of that,” she said, “is there was undeniably a genocide that was happening.”

Philsan’s dream trial: bringing the perpetrators of the Isaaq genocide to justice.

“There’s just been so little international recognition about it, both in academia and in law and politics and policy,” Philsan said. 

For now, though, as a first-year law student, she’s focused on building a strong skill set in writing and research.

“You have to know the rules to play the game,” she said, recounting advice from a professor. 

The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship will allow Philsan to graduate with less debt, and thus be able to explore lower-paying human rights fellowships that expand her opportunities, she said. She’s also excited to develop a community with her New Americans Fellowship cohort.

“We are all first-gen or immigrants and we bond on that front,” she said. “We have shared traumas that I think other people often cannot understand. But deeper than that, just seeing them independent of their origin stories, seeing them in what they’re doing right now, and all the incredible things that they’re going to accomplish—it’s incredibly inspiring and motivating.”

Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the number of applications the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans received this year.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...