Dinner and a Mission

“I wanted to reconnect,” says Gillian Meltzer Miniter, C’90, about how she first turned back to her alma mater. She had taught English and traveled in Europe for two years after graduation, then returned to the U.S. and was working as an analyst on Wall Street. Looking for a connection, she found a calling: For more than a decade, she has sponsored a series of dinners with George Weiss, W’65, that has raised millions for financial aid.

Q: How did you get involved in scholarship aid?

Miniter: I wanted to do something very meaningful to me, so I did some exploring and found the financial aid committee and met George Weiss. I was very inspired by George and his story. He had come to Penn on financial aid from a modest background, and he became a great success, and his main focus is helping other people. I fell in love with the idea of raising money for financial aid. It became my passion because I really felt that you could change somebody’s life.

Q: How did you think of hosting dinners to raise money for scholarships?

Miniter: I came up with the idea of cultivating people who were ready to do something more than just sending a check but weren’t sure how. I thought this would be a way to engage them, so I asked George if he would help and speak, and he and I have hosted dinners since then. We would have a round table and go around and introduce ourselves and all talk about our experience at Penn, and then George would talk about what was going on now. That was important—we all wanted to know what was happening on campus. Then we discussed financial aid as a way to give back. And the dinners have been incredibly successful.

Q: What’s your experience with your own scholarship recipients?

Miniter: My scholars have always been minority women from New York, and each one is nicer than the next. But for me, I don’t see it so much as being about one student rather than the big picture and how many other people I can get to donate to scholarships. I just think that there are so many kids that need an opportunity—and I think it enriches everyone.

One of the stories I tell at my dinners is about the first time I went to the scholarship celebration at Penn. I didn’t really know what to expect, and my own student was coming later because of a class. And students just kept coming up to me and saying thank you. One after another, these kids that were not my kids came up to me to say thank you and to tell me their story and tell me how much they loved Penn and what they were studying and how inspired they were by their classes and their professors.

Q: Was there one that you especially remember?

Miniter: I was most touched by an African-American woman from Chicago, from the projects. A guidance counselor had approached her and said, “You’re doing very well. I really think you should go to college.” She went home and asked, “They tell me I should go to college. Where should I go?” And nobody knew colleges. Nobody had gone to college. So they bought a U.S. News & World Report, and got a list of the colleges, and she applied to several. She wound up deciding between Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania, not knowing the difference. Penn offered her the most money, so she came here and did incredibly well. She ended up becoming a Goldman Sachs Scholar.

But she said that when she went home, all of these kids that she grew up with suddenly realized that college was an option. Now many of them were striving to go to college, and many did. That was what really struck me. You change one life, for sure. But you often change many others that you don’t even know about. It gave a whole group of people hope and something to strive for that they never even thought about before.

Q: What response do you get from your dinner invitees?

Miniter: It’s rare that people don’t send me an email saying how inspired they were, and they very often stay in touch with me. They say, “Just want you to know I’m so happy, and I’m meeting my scholar.” So for me it’s been a nice experience with the donors, as well. Because when you give something like that, you also receive.

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