Siddiqui, 18, was accepted to several universities. But she turned them all down. Siddiqui is a Thiel Fellow.
The Thiel Fellowship was named for founder and funder Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal, early investor in Facebook, billionaire). The program, in its second year, works like this: 20 teenage winners each get a $100,000 grant to pursue a project of his or her own design. For two years, Siddiqui can devote herself to her ambitious, if not exactly original, goal — to end poverty. There’s just one catch. Until the end of the fellowship, no college allowed.
Siddiqui hasn’t decided what she’ll do when her stint is over. “People want my opinion on higher education,” she said, but she has no interest in chiming in. “The truth is, this is just something I wanted to do.”
Her choice raises the very question Siddiqui won’t answer: Is college worth it?
That challenge is at odds with the widely held belief that a college degree is a prerequisite for success. But with tuition rising faster than inflation and many recent college grads facing massive debt as they struggle to find a job, the value of a college education is coming under scrutiny.
Siddiqui’s parents are Pakistani natives who moved to the United States to study at George Washington University. “That was their biggest ambition for us,” said Siddiqui. “Attending university, earning advanced degrees.” Her parents were so opposed to the fellowship that they told her not to apply.
Uzair Siddiqui, Noor’s father, disagreed with the Thiel method.
“You choose these kids,” he said. “They have no idea what their lives will be like. And you offer them all this money? My initial reaction was: It’s a terrible idea. Kids need to be in school.”
Undeterred, Siddiqui applied in secret and won her parents over once she’d been selected as a finalist. She plans to intern, speak at conferences, and write a book chronicling her efforts to “connect marginalized populations in the underdeveloped world to employers in the West.” Basically, she wants to match poor people with jobs.
Uzair Siddiqui and his wife, Rubina, have come around. The father is not worried about academics anymore. “Once she’s through with the fellowship, it will allow her to go wherever she wants,” he said.
Now, he is worried about boys.
His daughter is considering housing options. “There’s TheGlint,” she said, a live-work community in San Francisco. “My parents hated that.”
“It’s coed by bed!” her father said. “Her roommate could be a boy! I was not okay with that.”
Many fellows, like Siddiqui, move to Silicon Valley, but they’re allowed to live anywhere. Fellows are assigned mentors and convene throughout the year to compare notes, but the program is, essentially, that there is no program. “It parallels adult life,” Siddiqui said. “There’s more freedom, but there's also more responsibility.”