Submitted on Monday, 6/16/2014, at 2:27 PM

July 31, 2013

By Daniel Diner ’14

Bess Hanish ’13

Since coming to Amherst, Bess Hanish ’13 has won so many honors and awards that it is almost impossible to decide which to highlight first. Perhaps she should be referred to as Truman ScholarBess Hanish, in honor of the respected leadership and public service award she won in 2012. Or maybe it should be Bess Hanish, Critical Language Scholar, in recognition of her participation in a Department of State Arabic program. But more appropriate yet might be Bess Hanish, Soros Fellow, referencing the prestigious prize she accepted recently.

Hanish was one of just 30 students who received the fellowship from the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans program this year. The awards provide up to $90,000 in tuition and support for two years of graduate study in the United States in any field of study. They are offered to undergraduate and graduate students who are either first or second generation Americans; this year the winners represented more than 20 different countries. Including the 2013 recipients, just 445 young people have been given the award in the initiative’s 16-year history. (Hanish was also awarded a J. William Fulbright Fellowship to study Arabic in Egypt, but declined it to accept the Soros.)

For most college undergraduates, winning the Soros or any one of the other honors Hanish has received might be considered a pinnacle of their academic careers. But it is only part of what makes Hanish so impressive. The California native was born into a large Yemeni family. As was the case with most Muslim girls in her community, she was pulled out of the public school system in the sixth grade. Knowing that education was her only means to a better future, Hanish insisted on returning to school, eventually reenrolling in the 10th grade. Though she had a high GPA, she could not take any honors courses as they were all consistently overenrolled.

After graduating from high school Hanish began researching universities, coming across and immediately fixating on Amherst because of its commitment to diversity and need-blind financial aid. She soon learned about Amherst’s community college transfer initiative and aspired to find the community colleges in California that would give her the best odds of getting in. She found Orange Coast College (OCC), a school 150 miles from her native Bakersfield that featured a particularly high transfer rate into prestigious four-year schools. She left home, got a job waitressing and, for the first time in her life, enjoyed freedom as she completed her OCC courses.

“It was great,” she says. “Everything I was doing was my own. If bad things happened to me, it was because I did something wrong. I got praise when I deserved it too. [Having] had no mobility prior to that, it felt like the whole world [could be mine].”

Hanish completed her courses early and got accepted into Amherst as a first-semester sophomore. She struggled that first year at the college, finding that OCC, as grateful as she was to it, had not fully prepared her for Amherst’s rigorous coursework. Nevertheless, she worked hard and flourished in the classroom and out: She even spent a fall semester interning at the White House. She served as a gift analyst in the Office of Presidential Correspondence, cataloguing every gift President Obama received from foreign officials.

Hanish’s next career stop was at the State Department. She took another semester off and worked at the Egypt and Levant Affairs Office of the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, where she was assigned such tasks as prepping an about-to-be named ambassador over a weekend for a Senate confirmation hearing and helping to plan King Abdullah II of Jordan’s visit to the United States.

During her final two years at Amherst, Hanish’s grades improved and she began leading the Transfer Students Association, getting involved with the Association of Amherst Students and joining college committees on admission, financial aid and discipline. Over the summers she conducted research on indigenous women’s issues in the Indies, completed the TRIALS program for intensive law school preparation and traveled to Morocco and Jordan on scholarships to study Arabic.

This summer, Hanish is studying at the Truman Summer Institute, which she describes as being “like The Real World but for future public servants, living together in communal housing.” She is currently working in her third position with the federal government, in the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau in the Arabian Peninsula Office of the Department of State. She spends her off time with the other Truman Scholars at the Summer Institute, where she’s already met such figures as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Vermont Governor and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. She continues to be in regular communication with the Soros Foundation, which has provided—in addition to her financial scholarship—professional mentoring and access to networking. Come September she will be studying at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Law, working towards a juris doctorate with a focus on social justice.

Hanish attributes the high number of awards and scholarships she’s won to her ability to make full use of the opportunities available to her. She praises the California community college system that allowed her to start her education for free, as well as Amherst and programs such as TRIALS and Soros. She wishes that more underserved students knew about such opportunities, she says. “I just want to spread the word about [these programs] so more people will know to take advantage of them.”

(To learn more about the Soros and other opportunities for Amherst students, visit the college’s Office of Fellowships website. They offer help with national fellowships, Amherst College fellowships, and direct-apply fellowships.)