Gilbert Cisneros’ Good Fortune Changes Student Lives

Gilbert Cisneros, BA ’94, and family
Alumnus Gilbert Cisneros, BA ’94, his wife, Jacki, and their twin sons.
June 17, 2014

Alumnus donated $1 million of lottery winnings to aid GW students. Now he’s seeing how giving back helps young Latinos get ahead.

For Danielle Reyes, the weeks before the start of her freshman 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.

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, Reyes was ready to give up on her GW dreams. “We were coming down to the wire,” she recalled. “I started thinking this wasn’t going to happen for me.”

As if on cue, Reyes received an email just before deadline that allayed her fears. The email 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 alumnus Gilbert Cisneros, BA ’94, and his wife, Jacki, the scholarship is presented annually to two deserving incoming freshmen. (They also donated an additional $100,000 to GW’s Yellow Ribbon Program in support of veteran education.)

“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I opened that email,” said Reyes, who is finishing her freshman year and planning to double major in biological anthropology and criminal justice. “It changed my whole life.”

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,” 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% of Latino Americans over 25 have a college degree—Cisneros admitted he might have become one of those sad statistics. The factory jobs in his middle class neighborhood in Torrance, CA, disappeared generations ago. Few of his Latino friends from high school ever went to college. Cisneros found an avenue into education through a Navy ROTC scholarship, which paid for his tuition at GW.

“Without an education, you’re nowhere,” said Cisneros. “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.

Like Cisneros, Reyes is the first person in her family to leave her home in California for college. And while she misses her mother’s tortillas and her family’s Easter gatherings, she knows she's been handed an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I am so grateful to him,” she said. “I needed someone to give me a chance and that’s exactly what he did.”

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

More than Signing a Check

At GW, Cisneros was influenced by his political science studies and on-campus speeches by national leaders like President Ronald Reagan and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. In fact, an inspiring talk by Jackson persuaded Cisneros to register to vote in the District. An avid Colonials basketball fan, Cisneros attended nearly every home game during his days on campus, and witnessed the team’s run to the NCAA’s tournament Sweet 16 in his junior year.

“My college experience was wonderful,” he said. “It was fun. It was exciting. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

A member of GW’s Athletic Advisory Council, 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. Most recently, Cisneros has agreed to serve as co-chair of the Columbian College component of the university’s comprehensive fundraising campaign.

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.

Aside from his service and generosity to GW, Gil and Jacki Cisneros support educational initiatives for Latino students in California through the Gilbert and Jacki Cisneros Foundation. Their donations have funded a slew of projects, including scholarships for students in Hispanic districts, grants to improve math education in Orange County schools, and an ongoing “Bags of Books” gift for kindergarteners.

The lottery windfall has also allowed Cisneros to cover college costs for his family and freed him to pursue a lifelong passion for travel. But most recently his focus has been the recent birth of twin sons, Alexander and Christopher. “That African safari I always wanted to take is looking more like the jungle cruise at Disneyland,” he joked.