Editor’s note: A version of this story also appeared in the 2018 Wells Fargo Annual Report.
Lily Sooklal was never really sure what she wanted to be when she grew up. She was always interested in so many different subjects, especially the sciences, making it difficult to choose a career.
It wasn’t until her aunt was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that Sooklal’s career path became clear. Her aunt, who lives in Trinidad, began losing some of her cognitive and mental abilities as a relatively young adult, and now has trouble with her speech and recognizing even family members, Sooklal said. As a result, Sooklal doesn’t have as close of a relationship with her aunt as she does with her other relatives.
“Having that recognition really helped with my confidence, to know I can achieve what I’m dreaming.”
— Lily Sooklal
“When we would visit, it was really hard watching her struggle in a developing nation,” Sooklal said. “Because she doesn’t have access to certain resources, her mental degradation has been severe. She’s in her 40s and hasn’t been independent since her 30s. That was hard to watch. I’ve always wanted to help her situation and help other people who struggle with difficult diseases and poor care.”
Sooklal decided to study at the University of Maryland, a pursuit that would make her the first in her family to go to college. In Trinidad, where her parents are from, her family has a long history of farming. As a result, Sooklal’s father was not able to go to high school.
Going to college would set Sooklal on a course to help people like her aunt, and it would fulfill a dream of her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. in the hopes that their children would have better academic opportunities.
“Education has a lot of value to us and is something my parents instilled in us to better ourselves,” Sooklal said. Since her family lived below the poverty line, Sooklal’s parents said she would need to pay her own way through college.
For students like Sooklal, there is support. Her guidance counselor told Sooklal, an Indo-Trinidadian American, about APIA Scholars, formerly the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, which promotes the success of Asian and Pacific Islander American students through scholarships, college planning, leadership training, financial education, and professional development tools and resources.
Wells Fargo has worked with APIA Scholars since 2006, providing more than $7.6 million to fund more than 1,700 scholarships. Since 2013, Wells Fargo has also supported the organization’s Jump Start College Tour.
“We are proud to have supported APIA Scholars for 12 years,” said Jimmie Paschall, head of Enterprise Diversity & Inclusion at Wells Fargo. “One of our goals as a company is to make a positive contribution to communities through philanthropy, advancing diversity and inclusion, creating economic opportunity, and promoting environmental sustainability. Through APIA Scholars, we are supporting both diversity and higher education in a direct and meaningful way: by providing talented, underserved APIA students the financial means to achieve their dreams of attending a college or university.”
‘I believe in myself’
Sooklal’s scholarship helped her with college tuition and housing costs. She also benefited from APIA Scholars’ First Year Initiative, which provides tips, advice, and information to help scholars be successful their first year, understand their award, and learn about the programs and services the organization provides. As one of the scholars who benefited from Wells Fargo’s investment, Sooklal is now a 24-year-old engineer at Becton Dickinson, designing and developing medical devices that aim to diagnose diseases. She said her success would not have been possible without the scholarship — and now she’s working to pay it forward.
“For me, the fundamentals come down to having the opportunity to go to college and know it is possible for me,” Sooklal said. “Winning that scholarship and having that recognition really helped with my confidence, to know I can achieve what I’m dreaming of doing. I’ve achieved so much and will accomplish more. It helped during my academic career and my career now because I believe in myself. As a woman minority in the medical field, it can be difficult, but having that inner confidence and knowing what I’ve achieved helps me know I can move forward and accomplish my dreams.”
Many of the 252 APIA/Wells Fargo scholars pursuing their education in the 2018-19 academic year have similar backgrounds as Sooklal: Eighty-five percent are first-generation college students, and 67 percent were living at or below the poverty line.
Noël Harmon, president and executive director of APIA Scholars, said Sooklal is inspiring. “The arc of Lily’s family story, from a generation of indentured servants to a current-day bioengineer who designs life-saving medical devices, is a prime example of how APIA/Wells Fargo Scholarships can dramatically change the trajectory of people’s lives,” Harmon said.
‘It means a lot’
During her first year of college, a lab opened on campus where researchers were studying multiple sclerosis. Sooklal was able to do research in the lab.
“That was amazing to me,” Sooklal said. “That inspired me to study bioengineering. I wanted to do work to give back to patients in other countries.”
Sooklal said she worked hard — spending her weekends during the school year doing homework and her summers reading a lot and studying — to get her scholarship, go to college, and start her career, especially since there is added pressure children of immigrants face “to make the sacrifices their parents made worth it in a country that sees us as outsiders. There is a lot of pressure associated with Asian women in the U.S.,” she said.
Because of that, Sooklal seeks to inspire others. She serves as co-president of a women’s network at her company that supports the advancement and recruitment of women, as well as a member of an Asian resource group that promotes cultural awareness and diversity in the company, providing career and professional development tools and training and community service activities. Sooklal also runs networking and resume workshops every year at the University of Maryland and teaches a lecture class about networking and careers to engineering students. She also is a mentor at an all-woman “hackathon” at the University of Maryland, which she helped start.
“I go back and mentor because I think it’s important to support — both at the high school and college level — women in technical fields,” Sooklal said.
As she reflected on what she has accomplished since she received the APIA scholarship, Sooklal said she knows how much it helped her and has helped others. “APIA Scholars has given people in the Asian community hope and light,” she said. “It means a lot.”