Alumnus Uses Good Fortune to Change Lives

After donating $1 million of lottery winnings to student aid, Columbian College graduate is helping young Latinos get ahead.
Gil and Jacki Cisneros
Gil and Jacki Cisneros have shared their good fortune with Latino students in financial need.
August 07, 2014

By John DiConsiglio

For Danielle Reyes, the weeks before the start of her first semester at GW were fraught with anxiety—and not just due to the butterflies she felt over leaving her family’s California home for a school on the other side of the country.

Ms. Reyes had more immediate worries: whether she'd be able to pay for college. One bank loan had fallen through and another had yet to be approved. As the registration deadline loomed, Ms. Reyes was ready to give up on her GW dreams.

“We were coming down to the wire,” she said. “I started thinking this wasn’t going to happen for me.”

As if on cue, Ms. Reyes received an email just before deadline that allayed her fears. It informed her that she had been selected to receive $100,000 in funding support thanks to the Cisneros Scholarship Fund endowment. Created through a $1 million gift in 2011 by Columbian College of Arts and Sciences alumnus Gilbert Cisneros, B.A. ’94, and his wife, Jacki, the scholarship is presented annually to two deserving incoming freshmen.

“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I opened that email,” said Ms. Reyes, a rising sophomore who plans to double major in biological anthropology and criminal justice. “It changed my whole life.”

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Gil and Jacki Cisneros know a little bit about life-changing experiences. In 2010, they won California's MEGA Millions jackpot lottery—a $266 million prize—and immediately agreed on how to celebrate: share their good fortune with Latino students in financial need.

“Giving back to GW and helping young Latinos have greater access to this campus was probably the easiest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Mr. Cisneros said. “Jacki and I have always dreamed about doing something like this if we ever got the chance. Once we had this great gift bestowed upon us, we were blessed to be able to turn around and help others.”

Calling the college graduation rates for Latinos “unacceptably low”—only 14 percent of Latino Americans over 25 have a college degree—Mr. Cisneros admitted he might have become one of those sad statistics. The factory jobs in his middle class neighborhood in Torrance, Calif., disappeared generations ago. Few of his Latino friends from high school ever went to college.

Mr. Cisneros found an avenue into education through a Navy ROTC scholarship, which paid for his tuition at GW. Like him, Ms. Reyes is the first person in her family to leave her home in California for college.

“I am so grateful to him,” she said. “I needed someone to give me a chance, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Mr. Cisneros makes an effort to maintain a relationship with recipients of the Cisneros scholarship and follow their success stories. Recently, he had lunch with Ms. Reyes during a visit to D.C. In addition to chatting about the best Mexican restaurants near campus, Mr. Cisneros told her to contact him if she ever needed help or advice—something that Ms. Reyes very much appreciated.

“I’m thousands of miles from home and missing my family, and so it's great to know that there are others looking out for me,” Ms. Reyes said. “I don’t know if it’s because we are both Latinos or we are both part of GW, but he made me feel like we were in this together.”

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A member of GW’s Athletic Advisory Council, Mr. Cisneros hosted the men’s basketball team for a Thanksgiving dinner in his Orange County home. He’s also hosted the men’s and women’s tennis teams and the women’s water polo team when they played in California. Gil and Jacki Cisneros have donated $100,000 to GW’s Yellow Ribbon Program in support of veteran education. Most recently, Mr. Cisneros has agreed to serve as co-chair of the Columbian College component of the university’s comprehensive fundraising campaign.

Mr. Cisneros is also actively involved in Columbian College as a member of the National Council for Arts and Sciences. In that role, he is a strong advocate for promoting diversity among the GW student body and remains philanthropically committed to enhancing educational access for Latino students.

“Without an education, you’re nowhere,” Mr. Cisneros said. “I was lucky. I got to go across the country and study right in the heart of the nation’s capital. Now I’ve been lucky again, and I can share that with some remarkable, sharp young people.”