Mega Millions Winners Give Back to GW

January 19, 2011

Jackie and Gilbert Cisneros smiling at White House in front of press room podium

By Rachel Muir

It’s rare that a call at 2 a.m. is good news but last May 4 Gilbert Cisneros beat the odds—of about 175 million to 1.

That night his wife, Jacki, was working an overnight shift at a local television station when a news wire came through that the winning Mega Millions ticket was sold at the restaurant where Gil had bought dinner along with 10 lottery tickets. Shaking, she called him and insisted he check their tickets.

Sure enough, the numbers on one matched. The couple had won $266 million.

Now they’re giving back with a $1 million gift to GW’s Power & Promise fund, which supports student financial aid, and $100,000 to the university’s Yellow Ribbon program.

“It was something that I always dreamt of being able to do if I got the chance,” says Mr. Cisneros.

Thanks to the couple, two incoming freshmen in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences will receive $25,000 apiece in financial aid. The scholarships will fund study in political science, Mr. Cisneros’ major at GW, with preference given to Hispanic students from California. The scholarships can be renewed each year, enabling students to obtain $100,000 in financial aid over the course of their four undergraduate years.

“The statistics for Hispanics graduating from high school and going on to college are unacceptably low,” says Mr. Cisneros. “I thought why not give some students a chance that I had, the chance to study politics in the heart of the nation’s capital.”

Jacki Cisneros says the gift reflects the couple’s priorities and heritage. “My husband is Hispanic and I’m half Hispanic, so we wanted to focus on opportunities for those students,” she says.

“We had always talked about stuff that we would do if we ever could,” she says. “It seems fitting to give back now that we’re able to.”

The couple’s gift to the Yellow Ribbon program was inspired by Mr. Cisneros’ military service. He received a scholarship to GW through Navy ROTC and served in the Navy for 10 years. “It’s cool that GW is supporting veterans,” he says.

At GW, Mr. Cisneros enjoyed his political science courses. He remembers in particular a Latin American politics class where guest speakers included several ambassadors. “It was very unique.” He also heard national leaders speak on campus including Jessie Jackson and Ronald Reagan.

Colonials basketball was a favorite pastime for Mr. Cisneros, who says he went to almost every home game. In his junior year GW made the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. “I remember the whole campus being excited,” he says.

In addition to the Power & Promise and Yellow Ribbon gifts, the couple has made a donation to the Newman Catholic Student Center at GW. “Religion is very important to us,” says Mr. Cisneros. Devout Catholics, the Cisneros got married at the Vatican in 2005.

So how much have their lives changed eight months after winning the lottery?

“We’re not sweating everyday bills anymore, but as a whole it’s not that different,” says Ms. Cisneros. “I’m who I am, and I’m not going to change that dramatically at this point.”

The couple has created a foundation that will focus on supporting education. They’re also planning to travel more with vacations planned for Hawaii and Spain. And Mr. Cisneros will head back to GW in April for a meeting of the Dean’s Advisory Council on Arts and Sciences, which he recently joined.

“I had a great time at GW and got a good education,” says Mr. Cisneros. “It was definitely an experience I wouldn’t change for anything.”