LAS alumna receives Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans

Keerthana Hogirala, who immigrated from India, prepares for a promising career
Keerthana Hogirala
Keerthana Hogirala (Photo provided.)

Keerthana Hogirala was born in Tirupati, India. When she was 6 years old, her family moved to Michigan, and when she was 9 years old she moved to Illinois.  The transition to the United States was difficult.

Hogirala says that her parents had to work multiple jobs and long hours to keep their immigration status and secure their future. She also had a difficult time adjusting. “I think coming to a new country at such a young age and seeing my family go through so much difficulty forced me to grow up sooner on an emotional level,” she said.

“There’s a degree of survival instinct there,” Hogirala added. “The more I understood this new environment I was in, the strangers around me, the better I could adapt, fit in, and help myself and my family make a life here.”

She developed a strong desire to understand people, which led to interests that allowed her to delve into human behavior. Psychology, literature, and biology were her favorite subjects in high school, and she later studied neuroscience at Illinois. She graduated from the U of I in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in an individual plan of study.

This spring, Hogirala, now a graduate student at the University of Chicago, received the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. The fellowship is awarded to immigrants or children of immigrants who are pursuing graduate school and want to make meaningful contributions in their field in the United States.

Fellows receive $90,000 in support of their graduate studies. This year, 30 fellows were selected out of a pool of 2,323 applicants. The organization said it selects applicants by “identifying the most promising New Americans who are poised to make significant contributions to the nation through their work.”

Hogirala’s contributions to public schools, where she worked after earning her undergraduate degree, and her use of technology to improve the education system are cited on the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship website

When she attended the University of Illinois, her studies were focused particularly on child development, trauma-informed care, and social welfare. “I was always interested in understanding people,” said Hogirala.

At Illinois, Hogirala was a part of Volunteer Illini Projects. She led projects and also worked with local non-profits that served marginalized people. She was involved with the Champaign Community Health Center, American Red Cross of Central Illinois, Eastern Illinois Foodbank, and more.

During field research for a senior thesis, Hogirala realized she wanted to work directly with children. Her desire to work with children led her to her first job after graduating as a special education teacher at a low-income public school in the District of Columbia.

While there, she saw failures in the system that hindered students from getting the support they needed. This motivated her to go work in central administration for D.C. public schools.

Hogirala worked with schools through the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, creating innovative solutions using technology. She was later promoted to chief of staff to the chief technology officer for the school system.  

In 2023, she started pursing her dual master’s degrees in businesses administration and public policy at the University of Chicago, where Hogirala is a Neubauer Civic Scholar and a Harris Merit Scholar. She hopes to continue working in policy, entrepreneurship, and technology after receiving her degree.

Her long-term goal is to build social infrastructure that empowers marginalized communities. “I aim to ensure that essential services such as healthcare, housing, education, and employment are accessible to all,” said Hogirala.

Hogirala said the fellowship will provide crucial support for her last two years of graduate education and alleviate financial stress. “It also offers a network of incredible fellows and alumni, providing opportunities for mentorship, collaboration, and learning,” she said. 

She said her family, friends, and mentors have helped her overcome the obstacles she faced. She praised Bob Steltman, an academic advisor in LAS who now serves as executive assistant dean in the Student Academic Affairs Office, for supporting her during her studies at Illinois.

Hogirala will receive the funding from the Paul and Daisy Soros fellowship this fall with the upcoming school year. It will go towards her tuition and educational expenses.

“This fellowship not only validates my efforts but also motivates me to continue striving toward my goals,” said Hogirala. “It means a great deal to have people truly believe and invest in me and my aspirations.”

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Maggie Knutte