The Powell Gift: Three years, 1,000 dreams and counting
by Katie E. Ismael
Pacific Review, fall 2016
When University of the Pacific received the $125 million Powell Gift three years ago, it was almost impossible to imagine the impact such a staggering sum would have on the university. The Powell Gift — one of the largest single bequests to any U.S. institution of higher education — was called transformative. Its magnitude would reach every corner of the university and shape the university for its next 165 years.
For more than 1,000 students who have called Pacific home since the bequest, the Powell Gift has indeed changed their lives. These students, who might not have otherwise entered Pacific’s gates, are now able to pursue not just a career but also their dreams.
A large portion of the gift made by the late Pacific Regents Robert C. and Jeannette Powell has been supporting talented students through scholarships. But the impact of the Powells’ investment extends far beyond those students’ lives in the ripples that will affect the countless others they will encounter during their careers.
It’s a gift that will shape the dreams and passions of thousands more for generations to come. Just as the Powells wanted.
"I wish I could convey my gratefulness"
Cierra Williams '18 EDU remembers her brother's struggles with a rare learning disability. He'd scream and cry, beyond frustrated, because he couldn't complete a simple homework assignment.
He'd then beg his parents to let him skip school the next day.
The Oakley, California, resident knew she wanted to help prevent other children from experiencing similar pain. Today, as she works to reach her dream of becoming an elementary school teacher, she says she is inspired by her brother's struggles and triumphs.
She has help in realizing that goal with a scholarship from the Powell Gift. When she learned she was a scholarship recipient, Williams, who would be the first in her family to attend college, was ecstatic.
She was so excited to tell her younger brother she was going to be a college student, she recalled, as he lives vicariously through her. She would be able to share stories with her brother of her college experience, and also have support from him and her mother, as well as her father, who is a construction coordinator on movie sets.
Commuting from her parent's home in the East Bay region to school two hours each weekday, Williams is earning a multiple subject credential along with a special education credential. She'll be able to do that in four years and quickly begin helping children grow and develop.
"I'm overwhelmed with joy and enthusiasm for the future," she said. "It's going to enable me to teach and make an impact. It's enabled me to pursue my dream."
While she's thankful to the Powells for their gift, she knows she's not the only one.
"I wish I could convey my gratefulness. It's more than just a scholarship — it will impact every class I teach. The students of my future classroom thank you, too," she said.
"Their gift will go much further than just these 1,000 students..."
To say that Ryan McVicar ’19 ENG looks up to his grandparents would be a slight understatement.
His grandfather, as McVicar describes him, is a self-made man who had once worked as a dairy truck driver and on a farm, and had supported his family through several jobs. His grandmother, “Babe,” was an oncology nurse who always wore a pink ribbon pin in a show of support for breast cancer research, though she never had the disease herself.
“They are the most selfless people,” he said. “They did things for others, not for themselves.”
He remembers having a realization as a five-year-old riding in his grandparents’ car: that he wanted to help people just as they had done in their lives. That day, he began thinking about being a doctor. As that idea developed, he decided he wanted to practice a field of medicine where he would be able to make a personal connection with a patient.
When the Clovis resident began to contemplate college, he said it was difficult to single out which university fit him until he went to Pacific’s Preview Day, which showcases the campus to prospective students.
“Their dedication to enhancing student life ensured to me that I was the priority,” he remembered.
Another reason? He didn’t get into Stanford University. Today he says that was a good thing; he doesn’t think he would have fit in. The size of Pacific and the personal attention he receives have helped him adjust to college life, which he recalls was a challenge for him his first semester.
Perhaps the biggest appeal of Pacific for the bioengineering major is the co-op program at the School of Engineering and Computer Science. He decided to participate in the program, which helps students obtain a paid internship. A lot of the inherent pressure that comes with starting college has been relieved with the scholarship he received from the Powell Gift. His family has several financial responsibilities, with a younger sister getting ready to start college and the fluctuations his father experiences as the owner of a small lighting business.
"I don't like knowing my parents have to worry about me. I feel so guilty; I want to limit that as much as I can," he said. "They paid for me for 19 years. The least I can do is give back."
After Pacific, he wants to attend medical school where he plans to study pediatric oncology or neurology — two directions he says that are influenced by the grace and compassion of his grandmother and family.
He wonders if the Powells could know how far the influence of their gift would go.
It's meant "1,000 lives that were changed," he said."One thousand lives freed from a cycle of lower education, which will give rise to offspring with a fighting chance."
"Their gift will go much further than just these 1,000 students," he said.
"They gave me an opportunity to pursue something I have a passion for..."
Moriah Rodriguez ‘18 PHS and her family moved from San Jose to Stockton when she was four. Her father had recently become disabled and her mother began working full time to support the family. It was a big adjustment, to be sure, and her mother was often exhausted after working and taking care of Rodriguez and her two brothers.
“My mom always told us she worked in order for us to be able to do better than they did,” she said.
Rodriguez took away more than just a strong work ethic from that example. Watching her mother help special education children as an instructional aide, she became inspired to work with children herself. She recalls helping her mother one summer in a kindergarten classroom and watching the progression of the children’s growth and development, especially the shy students.
Meanwhile, her father had become a pastor in a Spanish-speaking ministry, and she recalled spending several nights each week with children in the church. Teaching them piano and mentoring them drew her more to take that path.
When it came time to decide on a college, Pacific was her first option. She knew she wanted to stay close to her family, from whom she draws great support and comfort.
“When I got the acceptance letter, it was really exciting,” she recalled. “I would be the first in my extended family to go to school.”
A big concern, however, was being able to afford a four-year institution like Pacific, coming from a low-income family. Then the scholarship from the Powell Gift came through. While her initial dream had been to pursue teaching, once she started school, she chose the speech-language pathology program so she could help adults as well.
“It has always been of great importance to me to help children, and by becoming a speech-language- pathologist, not only will I be able to help children, but also others,” she said.
That’s due in part to the Powells, who she said have played a major role in her life at Pacific today and will continue to in the future.
“They gave me an opportunity to pursue something I have a passion for instead of having to settle for a job,” she said. “My hard work will pay off and I’ll be able to go on this journey and help others.”
The Powell Gift Grows
Think the Powells' generosity can't be matched? Think again.
In addition to helping students find and follow their passions, the Powells were also passionate about motivating others to support Pacific and the dreams of its students. So, a unique aspect was built into the Powell Gift to help others do just that: the Powell Match program. The Powell Match allows certain gifts to be matched dollar for dollar. That means a gift of $50,000, for example, could become $100,000 - doubling the good intentions of the Powells and of the donor. And most importantly, the impact on Pacific students. More than $60 million from the Powell Gift was allocated to match certain endowed scholarship gifts, while $25 million of the gift has been set aside to match endowed gifts that support academic programs, such as a new faculty position or student learning opportunities. Beyond the more than 1,000 students who have received scholarships from the Powell Gift, more than 150 additional Pacific students have benefited from scholarships that have been doubled by the Powell Match.
Find out more about the Powell Match at Pacific.edu/PowellMatch
MEET THE POWELLS
You could say Robert C. and Jeannette Powell dreamed big.
They rose from humble beginnings in the Bay Area to become major developers who shaped the Sacramento and Bay Area regions. The son of a small-business owner, Robert Powell attended Sequoia High School in Redwood City. He met his future wife at a roller-skating competition when she was also a high school student in the Bay Area. Powell left school in 1949 to begin a career in construction as a drywall installer. The couple never graduated from college, but by no means would that limit their success - or their continuing belief in the value of higher education.
In 1955, the Powells moved to Sacramento, where Robert Powell established the Robert C. Powell Development Co. He became a visionary developer and entrepreneur, his work transforming the Sacramento area through landmark developments such as the Gold River, Campus Commons and Selby Ranch residential communities, as well as the Pavilions shopping center, Sacramento's premier retail center. Jeannette Powell, an interior designer, added her professional touch to projects built by her husband.Robert Powell joined Pacific's Board of Regents in 1989; Jeannette Powell joined in 1999. During the years that followed, their support of and affinity for Pacific grew.
When Robert Powell announced to Pacific President Emeritus Donald V. DeRosa that the Powells would bequeath their $100 million estate to the school, he told Robert Powell: "You will change the lives of young people in perpetuity."Robert Powell died shortly thereafter.
In 2008 the Powell Scholars Program, Pacific's premier academic merit program, was born. Each year 10 exceptional freshmen become Powell Scholars and, over their four years at the university, they become leaders who excel academically while serving the community. Jeannette Powell lived to see the Powell Scholars Program thrive (find out more about the Powell Scholars Program).
Cynthia Wagner Weick, the director of the program, recalled that Jeannette Powell could be very shy in large crowds, "but when she saw the students in the Powell Scholars Program, she just lit up. She would urge them to 'find and follow your passions.'"Jeannette Powell died in December 2012 at the age of 80.
The Powells' gift, which had grown to $125 million by 2013, now not only supports the Powell Scholars Program but benefits a much broader range of students at Pacific.