Janesville73°

Making the numbers count

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Esther Cepeda
June 2, 2011
— Most people fantasize about winning the lottery. And then there are those who don’t hope and pray after buying their weekly round of tickets—they plan.

That’s how Jacki and Gilbert Cisneros came to be completely prepared for life after hitting a $266 million multistate lottery jackpot.


“Ironically, we had that conversation two weeks before we won—we knew we wanted to buy our parents houses, pay off bills and give back to our community” said Jacki Cisneros, an assignment editor at KNBC in Los Angeles who was at work in May 2010, getting ribbed by co-workers about her lottery ticket habit, when she matched her numbers. You can imagine everyone’s surprise when she won.


Now, a little over a year later, after buying a few houses and taking a vacation, the Cisneroses are busy making their money work for first-generation college students who might not otherwise find the leg-up needed to get into and finish college. According to the Obama administration, only 13 percent of U.S. Latinos have a bachelor’s degree and a scant 4 percent have completed graduate or professional degree programs.


“The first thing we did was put $20 million into a foundation because we knew giving was going to be an important part of the rest of our lives,” said Gilbert Cisneros, a retired U.S. Navy officer and corporate operations manager. “Then the fun started—we gave money to our church, to each of our undergraduate and graduate alma maters so they could start scholarships and partnered with the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation to create a pilot program for students who have no family experience with college.”


The couple know how important—and challenging—it is to be the first in the family to graduate from college, so they’re aiming to go beyond just funding scholarships. They want to create a community culture where going to college is not merely a real possibility but a concrete expectation with the supports to make it all happen.


“My mother was the first in her family to go to college,” Jacki told me. “She was a single mom, and I often went to school with her because there was no one to watch me. I remember when she got her master’s degree, one of her professors gave her a mini-diploma for me because I was in class with her all the time. I always saw going to college as the obvious choice after high school because my mom paved the way for me. It was never a question of ‘if’ I went to college, but ‘when.’”


Gilbert’s take on their mission focuses on the arduous process of completion.


“Not only was I the first in my family to get a bachelor’s, but I went on to get an MBA, and I know from experience that Latino students who don’t have family members who have been through the college process have no one to lean on, no one to ask for advice, and no one to tell them what to expect,” he said.


So far the Cisneroses have given $3.5 million to various schools and national organizations already working on getting Latino students into and through college. But their hope is that the program they’re helping the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation pilot in their hometown of Pico Rivera, Calif., can be a model for Latino communities across the country.


“We’re creating a community goal of supporting Hispanic student education that involves college readiness, awareness efforts and scholarships that will get others to understand that a college education benefits not just individuals but whole communities,” Gilbert said.


And while the Cisneroses are committed to educating Latinos, their Pico Rivera initiative is open to all students with grade-point averages of 3.0, regardless of race or ethnicity. This is important because almost all students who are the first in their family to attend college have few financial and social resources to complete a degree.


“The most important thing for people to know is that you don’t have to be rich or give millions to help kids get to college,” Jacki said.


Let me note that the Cisneroses’ generosity has raised the bar for lottery winners from now on. But even without newfound or hard-earned wealth, there are many things parents and communities can do to motivate young people to get a degree.


“Just mentoring or offering an internship,” Jacki said, “is sometimes enough motivation to inspire someone to go to college. Making a difference doesn’t have to be all about money.”


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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