Harvard graduate gives back to community
Makhija before graduation in the Harvard Library.
Neil Makhija recently received the bar exam scores from the test he took in July.
The results: pass.
"It's a relief," the May 2015 Harvard Law School graduate said.
School loan debt hangs over the head of almost every graduate to date, and Makhija, a 29-year-old from Lehighton, feared he would be in the same boat until he learned about a scholarship funded by late Carbon County native Horace De Young Lentz.
Lentz was a Jim Thorpe resident who attended the prestigious university in the late 1800s.
Born the son of a coal company operator, Lentz became an attorney and community activist after his 1891 graduation.
"I didn't know about the scholarship until after my first semester, my friend told me he got a small scholarship for being from Vermont, so I went to research possible scholarships for Pennsylvania."
He came across only one Pennsylvania option for his Carbon County home base.
"When I called the financial aid office, the woman told me that they had already distributed everything and it was too late. Then she asked where I was from, and I said 'Carbon County' and she paused in silence, and said 'Hold on.' "
Makhija was asked to send his birth certificate to the office, after which $25,000 a semester was applied to his college bill. The only qualification for the scholarship is to be born and raised in Carbon County. Of course he had to be accepted into Harvard first.
"When I got the scholarship I went out and found everything about Lentz," Makhija said. "He's buried in Jim Thorpe. When I went to the cemetery he had fresh flowers on his grave."
Lentz's community focus mirrors Makhija's own.
An active board member of Carbon County's Family Promise, which works to house homeless families in the area, he is also a member of the Chamber of Commerce's Young Professionals Council and has worked with community-based nonprofit service Turn to Us in Jim Thorpe.
"I started the student Coalition to End Homelessness while at Harvard, which helped develop a legal service program for a youth shelter which is launching this week. That's part of why I wanted to help Family Promise of Carbon County."
Makhija is quick to sidestep the spotlight for creating the coalition, however. "I don't want to take too much credit for that - I just helped bring people together from the law school."
He said, "The scholarship gave me the opportunity to come back to the area and work in the community right away instead of work for a huge law firm to pay off debt. We need to fix our education system so everyone gets a chance to have opportunities like this."
The little brother of two sisters, he is the only son of India immigrants Kailash and Lata, who have lived in Lehighton for 40 years. Kailash and Lata Makhija came from greater Mumbai, Ulhasnagar, a city of refugees that grew out of an abandoned WWII military barracks.
"My father is the hardest working person I know. When he was 8 years old he worked in a factory. He came from a one-room home that didn't even have running water. Being a first-generation American, I actually got to have a childhood. My father was a child laborer and I got to play soccer at Beltzville. It really makes me appreciate what we have here."
Growing up, Makhija's father, a well-known doctor in the area for 40 years, was always on call. Even now he shows little sign of slowing down in his older age according to his son.
"At this point, he's delivered the grandchildren of children he delivered. We grew up in our house with a wall of postcards of every baby born in the community."
Named after the accomplished Neil Armstrong, "dad was dreaming big," he laughed, Makhija is doing his best to live up to that namesake.
The minute he turned legal age he started working.
"I always had great examples. Both my sisters worked as soon as they were old enough."
He was employed at Pocono Whitewater and Schuylkill County's legendary Leiby's Ice Cream House Restaurant.
"When I was working at Leiby's I never thought I had a chance to get in (to Harvard) as a kid from Carbon County."
He did make it in however, "the Harvard admissions officer called and told me she thought I had the potential to be a leader, and they want to educate future leaders in every field."
Makhija proved the officer's hunch to be accurate.
While attending Harvard he won the Dean's Scholar Prize for State and Local Government Law, the highest honor at Harvard Law School in that subject. While attending college he was elected president of his class or of the student body almost every year. He received a bachelor's degree from Sarah Lawrence in 2009 prior to his law school stint.
Between earning his degrees, he spent two years working for Vice President Joe Biden doing traveling logistics, and in the U.S. Senate, "helping people navigate Washington bureaucracy."
According to Makhija it was his commitment to public service that helped gain the attention of Harvard admissions.
"The university appreciated my overseeing casework requests for tens of thousands of seniors and veterans who needed access to federal services."
He graduated from Harvard this spring after three years with a juris doctor and gratitude for the coal scholarship, "I got a really well-rounded education across the whole university."
Makhija took a wide range of classes, studying climate change and economic development, also studying at Harvard Divinity School learning how to use speech to engage the community.
He hopes by using his coal scholarship for climate change study he can help the community move forward.
"I appreciate in a very direct way all that we have gotten from coal as a community. And today we need to find new ways to reinvent ourselves and rebuild an economy that's stronger than ever."