Philanthropist and U.S. Congressman Gil Cisneros, BA ’94, was a first-generation college student. Now, by promoting leadership and academic opportunities for Latino youth, he’s helping young people write their own education success stories.
When philanthropist and U.S. Congressman Gil Cisneros, BA ’94, celebrated the GW Cisneros Scholars at a Foggy Bottom event in March, he called on each of the students within the leadership development program to use their education as a springboard for uplifting others in their communities through service and support.
“It’s about helping others. . . . When you do, you’re making your community, the country and the world a better place,” said Cisneros, who endowed with his wife, Jacki, the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute in 2015 to be the model in higher education for mentorship, leadership development and academic research that elevates Latino voices. “For me, it’s all about service and giving back . . . and hopefully making a difference in people’s lives.”
As Cisneros Scholars, dozens of undergraduates—most of whom, like Cisneros himself, are first-generation college students—are preparing to follow in his footsteps. The program is helping them hone their leaderships skills to make their marks in their communities and the world at large. As of fall 2020, there were 43 undergraduate students attending GW as Cisneros Scholars. They come from 17 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Each were selected based on academic achievement and a demonstrated commitment to service and leadership in the Latino community.
“My goal as a Cisneros scholar was to succeed academically and take advantage of all the resources that the institute has to offer me,” said Madeline Aguirre, a senior majoring in economics and international affairs. “I hope to set the path for future Latino students who come to GW so that they can also be successful.”
Through various outlets, Cisneros Scholars are thriving in a supportive academic environment that celebrates their diversity and contributions to the GW community. In addition to receiving financial assistance, scholars participate in curriculum-based leadership training and community service activities throughout their undergraduate years. The institute also provides social and academic support, and—through its affiliate faculty and research fellows—exposes students to mentors and career coaches, as well as internship and networking opportunities.
“Education changed my life. It gave me opportunities I didn’t know were out there.”
— Gil Cisneros
“My wife and I really wanted to create an opportunity,” Cisneros told the students at the March event. “But the institute is only as successful as you’re going to be. You are the ones who are making this happen, you are the ones who are going out and doing the work academically. You are the ones who are supporting each other, making sure you are getting through your classes. You are the ones who are uplifting and mentoring each other.”
In addition to the Cisneros Scholars, the institute supports Caminos al Futuro, a fully funded, pre-college and residential summer program that immerses rising high school seniors in the social, economic and political transformations affecting the Hispanic/Latino community. Cisneros Scholars often participate in the Caminos program, assisting as summer residential advisors and mentors.
“We are particularly proud of what our scholars are achieving and the diversity they bring to GW,” said Cisneros Institute Executive Director Elizabeth Vaquera. “All of our fourth-year students have retained high GPAs and have either graduated early this past fall or are scheduled to graduate this spring—that’s a 100 percent retention rate. During their time here, some have conducted graduate-level work and assisted professors on funded research projects. They leave the institute ready to thrive in graduate school or launch their professional careers.”
In addition to student programming, the Cisneros Institute produces research that offers policy solutions to issues facing the Latino community. These efforts include a project supported by the National Science Foundation to explore the emotional wellbeing of Latino undocumented young adults, and an initiative supported by the National Institutes of Health and GW’s Cross-Disciplinary Research Fund to examine the effects of current news and immigration policy changes on Latino families.
“The Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute has built a supportive environment for students that values their contributions and recognizes that diverse perspectives are critical to the future of this country,” said Paul Wahlbeck, dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, in which the institute is housed. “Developing global leaders is the hallmark of our university and the reason why we support an inclusive, diverse and equitable community where everyone feels like they belong and can succeed. The institute is the gold standard for making that happen.”
For Gil Cisneros, who came to GW to major in political science on a ROTC scholarship, it all comes back to providing a pathway to opportunity where all students can thrive.
“Education changed my life,” he explained. “It gave me opportunities I didn’t know were out there.” He noted one of his favorite quotes by baseball legend Jackie Robinson: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Main photo: Philanthropist and U.S. Congressman Gil Cisneros, BA ’94, speaking at an event celebrating the GW Cisneros scholars