A Kellogg Soros Fellowship Winner Carves Out His Own Path
by Benjamin Chou, JD-MBA 2020
$90,000 was on the line. There I sat, at a table with four other people, interviewers, peppering questions at me nonstop. The previous day, the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans program flew me in from Chicago to Los Angeles to take part in two 27-minute-long interviews. Those interviewers were all that separated me from $90,000 in scholarship funds or $90,000 in student loan debt.
Thus, I answered every question by channeling the love I have for public service. Show, not tell, was the goal. They’d seen my resume and read my essays regarding my previous work experiences for national leaders such as former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 2016 presidential candidate and former Governor Martin O’Malley. But I needed to show them I was not the typical person one would expect to be in the positions where I was.
I am a gay child of immigrants from Taiwan who grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. My grandparents fled China for Taiwan because of politics (the Communist Revolution) and my parents left Taiwan because of politics (perpetual fear of the Communists attacking Taiwan). Thus, when I first told my family I wanted to pursue a career in politics, they were staunchly opposed. Here I was, the ungrateful heir to a family that despite having lost everything only a generation ago, had finally clawed its way into the American middle class.
On top of it all, I had to come out as gay. The community I was raised in went to our non-denominational but Southern Baptist-aligned church at least three times a week. I was one of our church’s youth group leaders and by high school graduation, had participated in five different mission trips across Texas and even once to Taiwan. Coming out led my parents to worry that I would bring shame upon the family. Given my public presence as one of a handful of Asian Americans in Texas working in politics, it was inevitable that everyone in our conservative religious community would learn about my sexual orientation.
Carving out my own path was not only heart-wrenching but often lonely. To this day, I don’t know a single other person from my childhood community who works in politics. These circumstances however, helped to shape who I am.
Towards the end of the Paul & Daisy Soros interview, one of the ladies asked how it could be that I seemed so confident and fearless in my career choices. “Often times I’m the only Asian or gay person in a room full of people. But I’m not going to let that stop me from doing the best job that I can.” One of the men jumped in and asked, “What we’re trying to get at is what in your core makes you feel so confident?” Ten uncomfortable seconds went by as I struggled to form a response. Then I recalled a moment with my mother two months prior to the interview. I was driving the two of us somewhere, and per usual, she raised the frustrating question about when I would bring a girlfriend home. My canned response “never” always leads her to insist that I don’t act gay and that I must be bisexual. Out of nowhere, she looked me in the eye and said, “Ben, I’m going to try to be proud of you.”
A month later, my phone rang. I answered to the shock that I had been named a member of the new Paul & Daisy Soros class. My response to them was the same as when I received the phone call welcoming me to Kellogg, “Thank you for believing in me.” To have others out there affirming the life decisions I have made when I often cannot find that within my family or community – means the world to me.
Pride. I’m so proud to be Asian, the child of immigrants, gay, a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow, and a student here at Kellogg.