When USC Annenberg alumna Jacki Wells Cisneros ’95 toured the construction site of Wallis Annenberg Hall, she knew 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 in the media center of Wallis Annenberg Hall, scheduled to be completed next fall, named in their honor.
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, they established the $1 million Wells Cisneros Scholarship at USC Annenberg. The scholarship, which is renewable, provides $25,000 to one deserving student entering USC Annenberg each year. Extra consideration is given to Latino-American students, those from the state of California and those with financial need.
As a USC Annenberg alumna and established donor, Wells Cisneros was eager to take a recent, 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 aligns with her own.
“The kind of journalism that Annenberg is teaching would never have been possible even 10 years ago,” she said. “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.”
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 and its TV, radio and direct-to-Web vodcast studios will allow students to share and publish from multiple sources to any medium.
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 [Ernest J.] Wilson it was really that simple — I just had to have it.”
For Gilbert Cisneros, a George Washington University alum, focusing on giving back to Latino youth through the Gilbert and Jacki Cisneros Foundation has been very fulfilling.
“When we won the lottery, I had just left my job because I wasn’t happy,” Cisneros said. “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.”
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,” Wells Cisneros said. “It’s very important that we have educated Latinos getting into college.”
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 align with their causes and are willing to actively work with the foundation in providing assistance to those they serve.
“There are a lot of underserved kids whose parents don’t have the means to send them to a school like USC or Annenberg,” Wells Cisneros said. “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.”
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,” Wells Cisneros said. “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,” she said. “But I still call the station to pitch things, and I still try to keep my foot in the door if I can.”
That 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 Wallis Annenberg Hall next fall.
“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,” she said. “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.
Planning for Wallis Annenberg Hall was initiated by a $50 million lead gift from the Annenberg Foundation at the direction of Wallis Annenberg, who is also the foundation’s president and CEO. The new construction will supplement the school’s current operations in its existing building on Watt Way.