Raising the Bar

by John Petrick

Neil MakhijaSince graduating from Sarah Lawrence, Neil Makhija ’09 has pursued his JD at Harvard Law School and worked in the White House, a US senator’s office, and New York’s City Hall. But make no mistake: When Makhija started his undergraduate work, politics was not his original concentration.

“I always wanted to be a neuroscientist,” says Makhija, who expects to complete his degree at Harvard this year. It might sound like a stretch, transitioning from an undergrad researching robotic learning to a post-grad in Harvard Law School on a nearly full scholarship. But there is a thread. “I was curious and energized by tackling complex problems,” Makhija says. “But I started to realize that what I wanted to see change was how public policy could enable innovation. I felt like I could do more, not on a lab bench, but through the law.”

Coming from a small town in Pennsylvania and being the son of Indian immigrants, Makhija says, has informed his study of law. “If it weren’t for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” he says. “Prior to that, America’s immigration quota was capped at only 100 Indians per year. My parents would never have immigrated here, and I certainly would never have had the educational opportunities I’ve had. It gives me an appreciation for the civil rights era, and a realization that when any group fights for equal protection under the law, we all stand to benefit.”

"I started to realize that what I wanted to see change was how public policy could enable innovation. I felt like I could do more, not on a lab bench, but through the law."

Makhija, who graduated as co-president of his senior class and commencement speaker, worked the following year for the White House’s Office of Advance. There, he planned official events for Vice President Joseph Biden, such as Biden’s 2010 visit to Kenya to support constitutional changes there. “The great thing about that work was that you got to see what he saw, and you got to go where he was going,” Makhija says. “There was a lot to do, but when you’re young it’s all very logistical. I’d be ironing the flags you see behind him during speeches.”

A year later, he went to work as a regional assistant for US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “It taught me that every level of government has its powers and limitations in how it can address the problems in people’s lives,” he says. “But, mainly, people want to know they are being paid attention to.” He recalls a parochial school whose staff wanted Gillibrand to intervene to prevent its imminent closing. He knew there was jurisdictionally nothing the senator could do, but the staff’s mere presence at a public meeting about the school’s fate heartened those fighting to save it and brought enough attention to the issue that the school survived.

Interning last summer in New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Legal Counsel, Makhija was again reminded of what’s possible to achieve through government and what’s not. “I assisted on any number of legal issues during the first summer of the administration,” he says. “I even got to write a bill—a piece of good government legislation I hope will pass. I can’t say what it is.”

Makhija’s next transition, with graduation from Harvard looming? Short term, he’s studying for the bar exam while keeping an eye on the 2016 election cycle. And he’s working on an independent study project—a conference project of sorts—about the next global climate change treaty. “Long term, I’d like to work in advocacy or public service,” he says, “because the goal is to get the public’s attention and channel it into solving a difficult problem.”

Might he someday aspire to the judicial bench? Unlikely. “It’s just like that lab bench,” he says. “I’d rather be standing up.”