When USC Annenberg alumna Jacki Wells Cisneros toured the construction site of Wallis Annenberg Hall, she knew just which aspect of the 88,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art school she wanted to leave her mark upon.
“I just had to have the assignment desk, because that's what I did,” said Wells Cisneros, who made a career for herself in broadcast journalism at KCBS and KNBC in Los Angeles. “I worked on the assignment desk for most of my career, so it just seemed like the perfect fit.”
Wells Cisneros and her husband, Gilbert Cisneros, have pledged a $500,000 donation to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and will have the assignment desk of Wallis Annenberg Hall, scheduled to be completed in Fall 2014, named in their honor.
As both a USC Annenberg alumna and established donor, Wells Cisneros was eager to take a behind-the-scenes tour of Wallis Annenberg Hall, and found that its vision for the future of journalism, communications and public relations at USC closely aligned with her own.
“I think we're already seeing the future of Annenberg with the type of classes that are being offered and the state-of-the-art curriculum,” said Wells Cisneros. “The new building is going to be beautiful and have such a variety of activities going on. I can't wait to see it when it's done.”
The assignment desk will be featured prominently in the new building, at the center of the converged, 20,000-square-foot newsroom and media center. The newsroom will allow students to share and publish from multiple sources to any medium. Television, radio and direct-to-Web vodcast studios will each be multipurpose and allow publishing to multiple platforms.
At the heart of the newsroom, the 360-degree assignment desk will be home base for students monitoring and directing coverage of the day’s news.
For Wells Cisneros, the particular duty of being assignment editor – at the nerve center of a newsroom – has gained even more meaning in her life over the past few years. “I was working the assignment desk at KNBC the day I won the lottery, so when I started looking at the naming opportunities for the new building, I told Dean Wilson it was really that simple – I just had to have it.”
Since winning the $266 million MegaMillions jackpot in 2010, Jacki and Gilbert Cisneros have made it their mission to give back to their church and to their alma maters.Toward that goal, they founded the Gilbert & Jacki Cisneros Foundation. In 2011, Jacki and Gilbert established the $1 million Wells Cisneros Scholarship at USC Annenberg.
The scholarship provides $25,000 to one deserving student entering USC Annenberg each year, and is renewable each year, provided that students achieve standards set by faculty and maintain a 3.0 GPA. Extra consideration is given to Latino-American students, those from the state of California and those with demonstrated financial need. To date, two students have been named Wells Cisneros Scholarship recipients, and the scholarship will have two recipients on a permanent basis.
“We've been very impressed with the quality and energy of the students who have received the scholarship,” said Wells Cisneros. “I've gotten letters from them about careers and internships, and I get teary-eyed when I read them. It's like seeing the fruits of our labor actually happening, and it's very rewarding.”
Giving back to the Latino-American community has been particularly important to Jacki and Gilbert Cisneros, both of whom are of Mexican descent.
“Too many Latino kids are not getting the education they need to elevate themselves and their families,” said Wells Cisneros. “It's very important that we have educated Latinos getting into college.”
For Gilbert Cisneros, a George Washington University alum, focusing on giving back to Latino youth through the Gilbert and Jacki Cisneros Foundation has been incredibly fulfilling.
“When we won the lottery, I had just left my job because I wasn't happy,” said Cisneros. “I didn't feel like I was doing anything rewarding or contributing to society. But now with our focus of trying to improve the level of Latino education in this country, I feel like I have a purpose, and I'm doing something worthwhile rather than just punching a clock.”
In addition to USC Annenberg, George Washington University, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the Hispanic Scholarship fund and various churches, Jacki and Gilbert Cisneros have attempted to focus their foundation on organizations that not only align with their causes, but that are willing to actively work with the foundation in providing assistance to those they serve.
“Private foundation, non-profits, charities, schools, churches – they have to be in line with getting more Latinos into college and bringing up test scores,” said Wells Cisneros. “But we try to visit with students, and be as involved as possible. We don't just like to give money, we want to develop relationships.”
According to Wells Cisneros, this has been one of the primary goals of the foundation's involvement with USC Annenberg, as Latino and economically disadvantaged students have much to offer to their professions and schools.
“There are a lot of underserved kids whose parents don't have the means to send them to a school like USC or Annenberg,” said Wells Cisneros. “But they have a voice and a perspective to offer not just to their careers, but to the school. It's very important that these kids have a great education at USC and are able to experience all of the good that comes from that.”
Wells Cisneros received her bachelor's degree from USC Annenberg in Communication in 1995, and knew that journalism was her calling – even before she knew what it was called.
“I didn't even know that term, 'journalism', when I was in high school,” said Cisneros. “I just knew that I wanted to do 'the news,' and Annenberg was a perfect fit for me.”
Working as a KTLA morning show intern while being a full-time student allowed Wells Cisneros to find her footing in the field of journalism, and apply all of the knowledge and skills she learned during her studies at USC Annenberg.
“Working part-time while still going to school was cool because I got to take classes while still being in the newsroom,” said Wells Cisneros, who recalled a class on the principles of production as being one of her most memorable. “I got to see all of the different kinds of jobs in journalism and pick and choose what I was most interested.”
Though Wells Cisneros originally intended to continue her work as an assignment editor at KNBC after winning the lottery, she found herself passionate about a new career path in philanthropy.
"When you win the lottery, your life kind of goes upside down for a while,” said Cisneros. “Now my husband and I devote all of our time to our foundation, and we're more busy with it than if we had full time jobs. I'm very passionate about what we do with our foundation, and I've replaced news with something else that I'm equally passionate about.”
But Wells Cisneros is the first to admit that her career in news was difficult to walk away from, and that she still tries to be as involved in it as possible.
“It was a hard transition, because I really loved what I did. I loved everything about my job,” said Wells Cisneros. “But I still call the station to pitch things, and I still try to keep my foot in the door if I can.”
That kind of passion for news and journalism is what Wells Cisneros hopes to see reflected not only in students who are Wells Cisneros Scholarship recipients, but in all students who will walk through the doors of the Wallis Annenberg Hall next fall and help to define the future of USC Annenberg and their professional fields.
“The kind of journalism that Annenberg is teaching would never have been possible even 10 years ago,” said Wells Cisneros. “A new kind of student is being pioneered here, and there's a lot of opportunity. If you have drive, and if you have knowledge -- both of which you get from Annenberg – you have a lot of control over your own destiny.”