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Harvard Law student overcomes abuse and gives back

Matthew Schoenfeld (right) has launched a fund-raising effort with the Harvard Association for Law and Business. Matthew Schoenfeld (right) has launched a fund-raising effort with the Harvard Association for Law and Business. (Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe)
By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / April 22, 2012
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Matthew Schoenfeld was Googling himself last year to prepare for a job hunt when he saw the newspaper article.

It wasn’t a local-boy-makes-good story, though it could have been. Schoenfeld had indeed made good. He was so well-liked by his Harvard Law School professors that they nominated him for a plum job as Lawrence Summers’ research assistant, and so well known to his classmates that the annual school skit hailed him as a “networking prodigy.’’ (“Somewhere in your wallet,’’ read the skit program, “there is a Matt Schoenfeld business card.’’)

But the newspaper article’s Schoenfeld was not a 25-year-old wunderkind. He was a scared 11-year-old child.

In vivid prose, the article, from a 1998 copy of the New York Daily News, detailed a litany of abuses that began when Schoenfeld’s parents’ marriage fell apart and ended in fights so vicious that police often intervened.

His mother - according to the newspaper’s account of his father’s court testimony - hit and shook their only child, tried to sabotage his sleepovers, and once dragged him screaming off the bench during a Little League playoff game. She was stripped of custody, a rarity in New York.

“I hadn’t thought about a lot of that stuff in years,’’ Schoenfeld said.

It came back quickly, though, and his Google discovery soon took on new significance: How should he handle this piece of his past, so incongruous with his present, now that he knew it was public?

After telling a few friends about his dilemma, he made a decision. He would draw on his networking talents to help other kids, launching a fund-raising effort as part of a student group he leads, the Harvard Association for Law and Business. As for his own story, he would use it.

The student group had never done charity work before; it was more focused on helping students connect with business leaders. But it is now halfway toward its goal of raising $50,000 by the end of June for a mentoring program through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay, which will help disadvantaged children make their own meaningful connections.

It is a small effort, but big names are attached. Several high-profile Harvard figures, including Summers, have chipped in. Schoenfeld has led the charge, personally asking some friends for contributions and e-mailing hundreds of others.

“I wanted to give, and he actually asked me not to because he wanted to be respectful and not exploit his connections,’’ said Martha Minow, dean of the law school. “Of course I gave anyway. Not everyone who’s had an experience like that turns it into a generosity toward others.’’

As a child, Schoenfeld said, he struggled in school because his mother frequently kept him out of class, but a fifth-grade teacher helped him catch up. “She treated me like I was smart,’’ he said. “I had never been treated like that by a teacher before.’’

It was around fifth grade that Schoenfeld settled on a coping strategy, he said: “I just knew that I never wanted to feel like I was at a situation’s mercy again. Ever.’’

He began to work hard. His grades improved. He went to Columbia University, becoming president of his class. He sought out jobs on Wall Street, grew restless, and enrolled in law school. And, knowing what it was like to feel alone, he began to hone his signature skill: connecting with others.

“He’s able to create relationships with people that frankly are overscheduled and impossible to get to,’’ said Anthony Scaramucci, who as a prominent financier is one of those people but has nonetheless spent hours advising Schoenfeld on plans for the student group. “It helps that he’s a 1,000-year-old-person in a 25-year-old body.’’

Eventually, Schoenfeld found his way to Summers, the former Harvard president and US Treasury secretary who now teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Summers said he was impressed with Schoenfeld’s “great intensity.’’

For his own part, Schoenfeld said, he had found a role model in Summers, famously intense, himself. “Larry has said that while he was at the Treasury he tried not to suck up to the people above him. His goal was to help the people below him, which I think is really smart,’’ Schoenfeld said. “Helping people in general can only help you.’’

In June, Schoenfeld will go back to Wall Street as an analyst for Morgan Stanley. He knows people may criticize that decision in the post-Occupy era.

“There are definitely stories that are shameful in terms of the greed and the ill intent that was shown during the financial crisis,’’ he said.

“But,’’ he added, with characteristic lemons-to-lemonade attitude, “if you criticize Wall Street with the myopic perspective that finance equals bad, it’s not constructive. The mistakes of the crisis in some ways present an opportunity, because people who are more trustworthy are in higher demand.’’

Before Schoenfeld can become one of those people, he needs to graduate from law school, on May 24.

His father, grandfather, aunt, and uncle will be at the ceremony, though his mother will not.

But he speaks with her occasionally and says he has made peace with her, as he has with the rest of his backstory.

“It’s given me an edge other people don’t have,’’ he said. “If you know where you don’t want your life to be, it’s pretty powerful in driving you to the place you do want.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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