Tracing an Alumna’s Remarkable Journey

From Chechnya to Stern to Harvard, Alla Digilova Continues to Overcome the Odds

Alla Digilova, a 2010 graduate of Stern College for Women and soon-to-be Harvard Law student, has come a long way since she arrived in Brooklyn at age 14. She and her family came from Nalchik, a city in Southern Russia, thanks to a loan from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Fleeing war and strife, Digilova’s parents relied on welfare to get by, while her mother studied toward a degree in nursing to improve the family’s situation.

Stern College graduate, Alla Digilova, will begin her studies at Harvard Law this fall.
Stern College graduate, Alla Digilova, will begin her studies at Harvard Law this fall.

Nurturing her desire to become a scientist, Digilova entered Brooklyn Technical High School, a specialized science school, where she excelled despite her limited knowledge of English. She also co-founded an organization to promote women’s rights in the workplace.

One of the only observant Jewish students at Brooklyn Tech, Digilova reveled in the atmosphere of Flatbush, Brooklyn, where Judaism flourished openly. “When I first arrived in New York and saw all the Jewish people walking proudly to shul on Shabbat in their finest clothing, it was so beautiful to me because in Russia, Judaism is not something that was encouraged publicly,” she said. “When it came time to continue my education in college, I knew I wanted to be in a place where my Judaism could thrive.”

When she heard about Yeshiva University, with its dual curriculum and Jewish environment, coupled with the prestigious S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program, Digilova was hooked. As an honors student at Stern with almost full tuition coverage, Digilova majored in both biology and economics, and discovered that legal complexities fascinated her, especially the laws surrounding patents for medicine. For her senior project, she worked under the tutelage of Dr. Marina K. Holz, assistant professor of biology, to research new mechanisms of breast cancer cell regulation.

“Alla has always been one of my top students and I have been impressed with her drive, ambition and cheerful disposition,” said Holz. “She co-authored, with me, an article based on our research together for her senior project that was published in a peer-reviewed journal [the Journal of Biological Chemistry], which is quite an accomplishment for an undergraduate student.”

When Digilova decided to apply to law school, she studied on her own for the LSATs. By November 2010, she was accepted into Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and Harvard, among other top-tier schools. She chose Harvard for its strong program in intellectual property and hopes to work on patent laws and biotechnology, in addition to cases in humanitarian law.

“It’s rare to come across a student as capable, poised and well-spoken as Alla,” said Dr. Cynthia Wachtell, founding director of the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program. “She’s an incredibly impressive young woman who has demonstrated remarkable academic accomplishment and her achievements are made even more striking by the atypical journey that brought her to Stern.”

Never one to let an opportunity pass her by, Digilova spent this year learning at the Shearim College of Jewish Studies for Women in Jerusalem. She will begin Harvard Law School in the fall along with at least two Yeshiva College alumni.

Digilova attributes her strong work ethic to her early struggles in Brooklyn and the inspiration she received from her mother. “When we got to Brooklyn and lived in a small apartment, sleeping on mattresses on the floor and struggling for every dollar, it was quite a psychological blow,” Digilova recounted. “Nevertheless, I think it also helped me turn all my energies and focus toward becoming successful in my academics, as I know that is the best way to better my life.”

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