Now general counsel at Verily and a regular GW donor, alumna says the impact of aid on her own life reminds her to give back to others.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Cynthia Patton remembers the moment that changed her life “like it was yesterday.”
It was her senior year of college, and Patton was receiving multiple acceptances from the law schools to which she’d applied. But as she read over the offers of partial aid, she found herself growing more and more concerned. She’d already taken out loans for her undergraduate education. How much of an increased debt burden would she have to take on? Would she have to hold down a full-time job while trying to get through a notoriously difficult degree program?
Then an envelope arrived from the George Washington University Law School.
“I opened the letter, and I almost didn't believe it,” remembered Patton, J.D. ‘86. “It was one of those things where you’re reading something, and you read it again and again, going: ‘Is this real?’”
Patton had received a full scholarship. She’d be able to focus her time and attention on her legal education.
“It gave me this sense of relief because I knew that law school was going to be a reality,” Patton said. “As I was opening up the other [aid offers], I kind of thought to myself, ‘Is this really going to happen for me?’ And once I got the GW letter, I knew, yes. I'm going to be a lawyer.
“GW completely changed the trajectory of my life.”
Patton is now general counsel at Verily Life Sciences, a health research firm. In a way, Patton said, “it was destiny” that she’d end up back in health care. Her mother worked for an organization that housed and cared for people with severe intellectual challenges, and Patton spent her college career taking premed courses with the intent of becoming a doctor. But an internship at Planned Parenthood her senior year made her realize that might not be her path.
“I realized, A, I don't like the sight of blood; B, I don't like being around sick people; and C, I don't have the patience to be around sick people,” she said, laughing. “So then I had to do a really quick pivot and figure out what I was going to do.”
Law school seemed like a perfect fit—a way for her to continue being involved in care, but with slightly less gore. “When I decided to go to law school, I also thought about the people that my mom worked with and the fact that they not only needed health care, but they needed advocates,” Patton said.
But though that interest in health care was in the back of Patton’s mind, she didn’t let it limit her. At GW, Patton’s full aid package and the many available clinic and internship offerings gave her the freedom to try a variety of fields. She did clinical work in landlord-tenant court, including an unrepeatable experience where a client produced a tinfoil package of rat droppings to justify their refusal to pay rent. She clerked for a judge.
“I worked for a small firm, I worked for a large firm, I worked for a public interest organization, and I also did as many clinics as I could,” Patton said. “And you couldn't do that anywhere else but GW.”
Now, Patton said, she makes it a priority to give back so that other people get the chance she did.
“[The full scholarship] was a huge gift that I was given…and I want to ensure that the gift was not wasted on me,” she said. “My first paycheck, I got $20 out of that check, and I wrote a check to GW. And over time those gifts have grown.”
In fact, Patton’s legacy at GW is more than financial. Her daughter will start at GW Law as a student this fall.
“She’s not getting a scholarship; her parents are writing the full check for her to go to GW, and I am thrilled to be here,” Patton said.
A few years ago, after Patton’s mother passed away, Patton was cleaning out her house when she found a bittersweet memento that brought home how much student aid had changed not only her life, but also her family’s.
“I found a letter that my mom had written to her mother talking about me and what an amazing kid I was, and that I had told her and my dad that I wanted to go to law school and they had no way of paying for it,” Patton said. “She said in this letter, ‘[Cynthia’s] probably going to have to work a few years and see if she can come up with the money on her own, because we can't afford that.’ So if I had not gotten the scholarship at GW, I would probably never have gone to law school—because we know that most people, if you take that time off especially in that economic circumstance, don’t go back to school.”
Financial aid “changed my life completely,” Patton said. “And it also has made me understand the importance of giving, and giving back. If I can change one person's life the way GW changed my life—boy, that will make you think about your purpose. That will be a huge part of what my purpose is.”
Open Doors: The Centuries Initiative for Scholarships & Fellowships charts a course to increase access to the transformative power of a GW degree. Learn more about how GW is expanding opportunity for the next generation of leaders.