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A Gift of Access and Opportunity

January 19, 2021 by Alexander Gelfand

Legacy commitment focuses on financial aid and inclusion for SAIS students

This story first appeared in the Planning Matters Winter 2021 Issue.

Mitchell Heller has never forgotten where he came from, or how he got where he is today. Which is precisely why he and his husband, Jim Morrison, recently endowed the Mitchell Heller Fellowship at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The fellowship is intended to recruit and support students with an interest in Latin America who hail from underrepresented populations such as minorities, limited-income families, and the LGBTQ community — a profile that Heller himself epitomized.

Heller graduated from SAIS in 1981 with a Master of Arts in international economics and Latin American studies. Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, he immediately entered a training program at a major international bank in New York City designed to groom employees for careers in Latin America. After seven years in Brazil, Heller relocated to New York City, where he worked with Latin American clients at several global financial institutions. For the past 15 years he has run his own wealth management firm, Hemisphere Partners, providing investment advisory services primarily to Brazilian clients.

Yet when a SAIS classmate heard that Heller had landed that first assignment in Brazil, his initial reaction was one of astonishment.

“I’m surprised they hired you for that position,” he told Heller, “given your background.”

That background was, Heller says, decidedly working-class. And he has always been acutely aware of just how important his time at Hopkins was to his successful pursuit of a career in international finance.

The bank that gave Heller his first break, for example, was specifically looking for people with the linguistic and intercultural skills to succeed abroad — the very skills that Heller honed at Hopkins.

“My education at SAIS was not just in the classroom, but also outside of it,” he recalls, noting that he spent his first year at the SAIS campus in Bologna, Italy, mingling with 126 students from 26 different countries before diving into Latin American studies back in Washington, D.C. And while he came to Hopkins fluent in Spanish, Heller learned Portuguese at SAIS, in part through an internship in Brazil that had been arranged by the school.

“Had I not had a degree from SAIS, I doubt the bank — or other employers —would even have looked at me,” he says.

Portrait of Mitchell Heller and Jim Morrison sitting together on a sofa.
Mitchell Heller and Jim Morrison’s legacy gift to SAIS is the first philanthropic fellowship to emphasize minorities and LGBTQ individuals.

When Heller and his husband, Jim Morrison, began to think about estate planning, the idea of giving back to SAIS naturally arose. Making a gift that would help support students in financial need seemed especially important because, as Heller points out, socioeconomic conditions have become significantly more challenging since his own days as a student: Wealth has become more concentrated in fewer hands, even as social mobility and access to subsidized loans have decreased. Their gift represents the first contribution towards the Propel Initiative, which seeks to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion by attracting and supporting diverse candidates.

And according to SAIS Development Director Khadija Hill, it is the first philanthropic fellowship at the school to emphasize minorities and LGBTQ individuals. “Hopefully, this will serve as an example for others to follow,” Morrison says.

The LGBTQ focus is particularly significant for the couple, who first met as undergraduates at Penn State University but only began dating in New York City after Heller had returned from Brazil.

Heller came out in his final semester at SAIS, and he and Morrison decided to make their gift in honor of Lee Doren, a classmate of Heller’s who guided him through the process and remained one of his closest friends until dying of AIDS in 1988.

For Heller, the gift provided a way to honor Doren’s memory while joining their names in a shared legacy. And it has already begun to pay dividends.

Although neither Heller nor Morrison knew it when they made their own commitment, a matching gift by SAIS alumni Peter and Pam Flaherty provided the Mitchell Heller Fellowship with two years of current-use matching funds. As a result, the first Heller Fellow has already been named: Jacob LaRochelle, president of SAIS Pride, the school’s LGBTQ organization.

“It was important to me that some of our money be used to provide other people with backgrounds like mine access to a SAIS education,” Heller says. “For me, it was the calling card that opened doors.”

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Topics: Alumni, School of Advanced International Studies, Support Scholars