Trustee Helps UConn Scholarship Drive for Women

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UConn Foundation

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UConn trustee Marilda Gándara ’78 JD is helping to launch a new group called Women and Philanthropy that will be dedicated to fundraising, mentoring, and advocating for female students at UConn.

Gándara and co-chair Melinda Brown ’77 (BUS), ’85 MBA have already launched its first project: a scholarship drive called Women Transforming Women.

The idea is simple: Get 100 women to donate $500 each to endow a permanent UConn scholarship for a female student. Each of the first 100 women to donate will be considered founders of the group.

The fundraiser has been wildly successful with 30 women donating a total of $25,000 so far. Brown has agreed to match the first $50,000 donated, dollar for dollar.

The idea of starting a women’s philanthropy initiative at UConn has been kicked around for years but never got off the ground. The new group follows a national trend at colleges and universities as the percentage of women in college has grown significantly and as women’s wealth has increased.

“I just started asking women I knew who were UConn alums if they would be interested and we’ve had a really good response,” Gándara said.

As an immigrant and a UConn trustee, Gándara knows doubly well just how important scholarships are.

Gándara, who emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba at age 10, is familiar with the hardship of being uprooted and plunked down in a country where one doesn’t speak the language. She knows what it’s like to survive on very little money and to try to find a way to pay for college.

Now, as a UConn trustee, she also sees the growing importance of scholarships from the other side, particularly during period of budget challenges in state government.

“For me, as a trustee, it is really critical to our mission because we want to make sure that, as a state institution, we are giving as much access as possible to talented young people,” Gándara said.

The group’s fundraiser dovetails with the UConn Foundation’s Transform Lives initiative to raise $150 million for scholarship aid. The Women and Philanthropy group also welcomes donations from men.

Gándara immigrated with her mother in 1960 as a political refugee. They settled in West New York, N.J. Her mother, who had been a teacher in Cuba, got a job as a factory worker. Her father, who escaped to Mexico after being jailed under Castro’s regime, eventually joined the family in New Jersey.

Gándara had finished 5th grade in Cuba, but when she arrived in the U.S., she was sent back two grades.

“The principal took one look at me and said ‘She’s too small.’ All of a sudden, two years of my life was sliced away, along with my achievements,” she said.

She worked hard, became class valedictorian, and applied to many colleges.

“I received a wonderful scholarship from St. Peter’s University [in Jersey City, N.J.],” she said. “That really allowed me to go to a college.”
After college, she enrolled in the UConn School of Law, specializing in real estate law. She remembers how difficult it was for women at the time.

“Women of a certain generation, my generation, we really were the first ones to come out in larger numbers to do things like go to law school,” she said. “I took the boards the first time in 1970. I actually had a few guys come over in the exam room and one of them said in the nastiest tone, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Taking the boards. What do you think?’ I guess if you want to be a lawyer, you aren’t going to be the shy type. But some people would have been rattled by that.”

Gándara knows a thing or two about fundraising. She was president of the Aetna Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, before retiring in 2008. During her 30-year career at the Aetna, she also served as an attorney specializing in commercial real estate for 13 years and managed the company’s troubled loan and hotel real estate portfolio.

Larry McHugh, chairman of the UConn Board of Trustees, has known Gándara since her days at the Aetna Foundation.

“She is dedicated to UConn and has a great track record with her years of experience at Aetna,” McHugh said. “I think that any time we can establish scholarships for students it is very important. We have students who really can’t afford college and this really can make a difference in a young person’s life. It is gratifying to see a member of the Board of Trustees using her talents to raise funds to support this cause.”

In addition to her work on the board of trustees, Gándara serves on the board of The Bushnell Performing Arts Center and has long been active in the Hartford community. Among her various endeavors, she helped found the annual Connecticut Veteran’s Day Parade in Hartford. She has taken the UConn master gardener course, as evidenced by thriving rose gardens surrounding her Scarborough Street house in Hartford, and loves spending time with her grandchildren, ages 2 and 4.

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