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From advising Bobby Jindal to law, been there done that

Last updated on: May 18, 2012 14:51 IST

From advising Bobby Jindal to law, been there done that

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Arthur J Pais

In the fifth part of the series on Indian Americans who won the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships, Arthur J Pais profiles Rina Thomas, daughter of Indian immigrant doctors settled in New Orleans.

I am much attached to New Orleans and I think I will be coming back here after a few years, maybe sooner," said Rina Thomas, who had deferred her admission to the Harvard Law School to accept a position as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's adviser on economic development, taxes and budget policy.

With the Soros' New American Fellowship, Thomas is ready to work toward a JD at Harvard.

"The financial support from the fellowship is a huge attraction," she explained. "Your options suddenly become more and you have more flexibility in deciding your academic and career moves."

But, she added, the fellowship also "creates a community of exemplary New Americans who inspire each other and learn from each other even while they are spread across the country at a number of prestigious schools."

Her projects in the governor's office have included passing economic development and public pension reforms through the state legislature.

Recently the New Orleans House Committee on Ways and Means voted to advance legislation that would allow corporations and individuals to get a tax rebate for donating dollars that create scholarships for children to attend private or parochial schools.

Thomas had to convey the message that the measure would not decrease state revenue even though, as local newspapers pointed out, the Legislative Fiscal Office, which analyses the financial impact of bills, could not make the same assurance.

'The state is not losing money. It will be revenue neutral,' Thomas told the committee.

She is often in the news as she comments on Jindal's legislative priorities.

She will miss the work she has been doing in the governor's office. "But there will be new things and new challenges to meet," she said.

Thomas was born in New Orleans to a surgeon father and a mother who has earned a doctorate in public health.

Both her parents are migrants from India. She attended a Catholic high school that she says blended tradition, liberal thinking and a focus on community engagement, values that remain important to her. Valedictorian of her high school class, she began her undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated her home city following her freshman year, she began fundraising for victims through the Wharton School's student council. She created a programme that connected undergraduate business students to the hurricane recovery efforts.

After graduating with a joint BA/BS in international studies and business, she returned to Louisiana to work with the state's Department of Economic Development on projects designed to reverse the state's brain drain and to combat its high rates of poverty, especially in the minority communities.

She became an analyst in the State Economic Competitiveness group at Louisiana Economic Development. Her work at LED caught Jindal's attention within months, and she became his adviser.

She says she relished the challenge of growing up in an Indian-American home as a full-pledged American and this is what the concept New Americans means to her.

"Children coming from two cultures or in some case three cultural background have to navigate these cultures," she explained. "The fact that you are influenced by two cultures including American does not make you less American. I believe it makes you even more American."


Image: Rina Thomas