Paying it Forward: Law School Graduate Gives Back

BY KENT JACKSON, THE STANDARD SPEAKER / PUBLISHED: OCTOBER 18, 2015

Neil Makhija feels a debt to Carbon County because a scholarship for county residents helped him graduate practically debt-free from Harvard Law School.

Makhija, 29, who grew up in Lehighton and graduated from MMI Preparatory School in Freeland, Luzerne County, was finishing his first semester at Harvard Law when he heard that a classmate from Vermont received a scholarship available only to students from that state.

Thinking he might shave a few hundred dollars off his tuition, Makhija looked through the school's restricted scholarships for one open to Pennsylvanians. He found an award solely for students from Carbon County.

Horace De Young Lentz, a Carbon County attorney and son of a coal company operator, endowed the scholarship in his will. Lentz graduated from Harvard in 1891, and nobody had taken advantage of the gift for so long that a financial aid worker initially was stumped when Makhija telephoned to ask about it. 

The Lentz Scholarship paid $25,000 of his $26,000 tuition each semester.

"It's kind of unbelievable — chance reaching out from the past," Makhija said.

As the son of immigrant parents, Makhija grasped the symbolism of a coal baron's largesse sending him through school. Since then, he has studied Lentz and found that the attorney once donated 100 pounds of cabbage to striking miners.

Makhija also reflected on the wealth that coal brought to Carbon County during an earlier era. "I was studying energy and climate change, and a coal baron scholarship is kind of funny," he said. "It made me realize coal was kind of short-lived."

As he starts his career in Carbon County, Makhija said the mentorship of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Correale Stevens, who coached his mock trial team at MMI, made him consider becoming a lawyer after he graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and worked in the offices of Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Now he is thinking how to help other county residents in their working lives as a volunteer with the Carbon Chamber and Economic Development, which aims to attract jobs.

Through the chamber, he met other young adults who have stayed in Carbon County and sees signs of promise. Tourist-related businesses like Pocono Whitewater, for whom he washed bicycles while in school, are growing, he said. He also would like to match companies with empty businesses like Schuylkill County's iconic Leiby's Ice Cream House Restaurant, where he also used to work.

Makhija, while preparing last week to move from the home of his parents, Kailash and Lata, in Lehighton to a place of his own in Jim Thorpe, also is reaching out to people who have no home. He joined the board of the Carbon County office of Family Promise, a national group.

"We serve homeless families … work with churches, house families, help them get jobs," Makhija said.

Article published by Kent Jackson, kjackson@standardspeaker.com, in The Standard Speaker.