“The fact that we each have a different background and story is precisely what makes us such a strong community,” he said in a statement to the Soros Fellowship program. “It means that we are often in the front lines of the struggle for justice, seeking to improve and uplift the many communities of which we are part. Being a New American means to celebrate the richness of the American experience while also working to enhance and improve it for everyone.”
Oktaba is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, where he is studying comparative literature with a focus on narratives of trauma, paranoia, and genocide.
As the son of a single mother who came to the United States seeking both opportunity and safety after helping to overthrow the Communist regime in her native Poland, the issue of trauma is personally compelling to him, he said. He was born in New York City and grew up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where his greatest solace was his neighborhood’s small public library; he’d carry a stack of borrowed books along when he helped his mother in her job as a cleaning woman, reading in whatever moments of respite he could find.
At Fordham, Oktaba studied classics, exploring the ways in which they continue to inform discussions of identity and selfhood. With the help of Fordham’s Office of Prestigious Fellowships, he earned a Beinecke Scholarship and a Gates Cambridge Scholarship during his senior year. The latter scholarship took him to the University of Cambridge, where he earned a Master of Philosophy degree.
In 2018, he was named a Luce Scholar, which enabled him to travel to Asia and continue studying trauma. Focusing on Himalayan Buddhism, he explored storytelling and other forms of witnessing in post-traumatic survival, as well as historical medical approaches toward trauma treatment.
Anne Golomb Hoffman, Ph.D., professor of English at Fordham, taught Oktaba when he was an undergraduate and has continued to support him through each fellowship application process, most recently penning a letter of support for his Soros application.
“It’s been my great pleasure to have been in conversation with Nikolas over recent years and to see the development of his interests over time, in ways that derive from work he did as an undergraduate,” she said. “In fact, knowing the importance of libraries and reading to Nikolas’ development, I’d say those interests have been there, developing since childhood: Nikolas is someone who takes what life hands him and makes it the occasion for productive inquiry.”
Now, as a doctoral candidate at Yale, he’s seeking to combine scholarly research and writing with activism, identifying possible ways to address trauma, holistically and empathetically, beyond the academy.
“My sense now is that Nikolas has fully merged his interests in his program of graduate studies at Yale,” Hoffman said. “Through his experiences in England and his Luce year as well, Nikolas now understands trauma and narrative in broader historical contexts, including genocide. That’s become the larger focus of his work and it will be truly exciting to see where it takes him.”
Founded by Hungarian immigrants Daisy M. Soros and her husband, Paul Soros, the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans program honors the contributions of continuing generations of immigrants in the United States.