“Someone once told me, ‘The value of your alma mater depends on its strength today.’ That’s what motivates me to keep Mills the thriving institution that I knew as a student,” says Gilena Vazquez Simons ’90, author of the book A Life Imagined. As a Trustee scholar, Gilena experienced firsthand the importance of scholarship support and, as an alumna, created the Gilena Vazquez Simons Scholarship.
Gilena recalls, “At Mills, I was able to spread my wings and felt comfortable expressing myself. I never felt I had to dim my light.” The Strike of 1990, which occurred while Gilena was a senior, had a big impact upon her view of her role as a Mills alumna: “The Trustees told us, ‘For financial reasons, we’re going to admit men.’ I remember the alumnae rallying support and their efforts are a big reason why Mills is still a women’s-only institution, and that really inspires me to give.”
In 2009, Gilena established her named scholarship, which she has renewed to support another student in 2010–11. She is an active member of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and sits on its Photography Committee. Gilena is working on a new book, Love Your Thighs, keeping up her blog, Can Gilena Wear It All?, and raising her two children. She also enjoys traveling and collecting art with her husband. Gilena states, “Mills taught me how to move in society and made me a well-rounded person. I want to provide that same experience to someone else.”
Alondra Maciel ’11 received the Gilena Vazquez Simons Scholarship, created by Gilena Simons, during her junior year at Mills. Alondra had the opportunity to meet Gilena Simons Vazquz in person to thank her for the named scholarship she received as a student. Alondra said, “Without alumnae like Gilena, I wouldn't have been able to graduate from Mills.”
Before receiving her degree in political, legal, and economic analysis (PLEA), Alondra participated in the Summer Academic Workshop (SAW) program in 2007 when she first arrived at Mills. SAW is a four-week residential program for first-generation college students that provides a supportive community and helps them transition to rigorous college-level coursework.
Alondra recalled, “I loved that, through SAW, Mills empowered women to take on leadership roles. I'm entering the business world, which is a predominantly male-oriented field. Mills showed me that you can be a leader.”
As the first person in her family to graduate from college, Alondra said, “No one in my family knew how the college process worked, which inspired me to get involved with Sisters Inspiring Sisters. I’m a ‘big sister’ to a ‘little sister’ and we go on outings or work on her college applications. I help her learn from my own experience at Mills.”
Award-winning science journalist and Mills Trustee Cristine Russell ’71 believes in providing scholarship support because she received it as a Mills student. “I've always been grateful that I was able to come to Mills with some scholarship assistance, so, as soon as I graduated, I began giving back to the College,” she says.
She named two scholarships in 2008–09, which were awarded in 2009–10: one for Reva Coon, her high school English teacher, and one for her parents, Betty and Val Russell. “Named scholarships are an important way to have an immediate impact on students and to honor people who have been important in your own life. It's a way to celebrate the past while opening doors to the future for students.”
Cris remembers, “Reva Coon inspired me to write and think—and to enjoy the process of putting words on paper. We stayed in touch over the years, and she was very proud that I'd gone to Mills. I gave a scholarship in her honor a few years ago when she turned 100. After she passed away, at the ripe old age of 104, I gave another in her memory.”
“I named the Betty and Val Russell Scholarship for my parents to honor their support for me going to Mills. They found out about it when they got a letter from the College, and they called to let me know it was a great surprise and that the honor meant a lot to them.”
Sylvia Kakassy, a recent graduate who is both a resumer and transfer student, received the Betty and Val Russell Scholarship in her junior year. Sylvia obtained her English degree from Mills because she felt the College took creative writing—and, specifically, poetry—seriously.
During her time at Mills, Sylvia appreciated the support of faculty members. She explained, “I felt so embraced by the faculty at Mills. I'm grew as a poet and as a student with their support. Being at a women's college meant you're bound to encounter somebody else you could identify with—and who could identify with you. It made a big difference.”
As a student, Sylvia enjoyed attending literary readings organized on campus and even hosted one in her home. “I went to every single reading in the Contemporary Writers Series while I was at Mills. It was inspiring to hear about the experience of published writers in all types of genres.”
On receiving the Betty and Val Russell Scholarship, Sylvia said, “It was so special to have an alumna help me afford the kind of academic environment Mills provides. I was grateful for the support.”
When Gloria Huerta received the Reva Coon Scholarship before graduating, took a tour of Mills while in high school, she found it easy to imagine herself attending the College. “I walked in and felt like I belonged here,” she reported.
Gloria, who grew up in Orosi, 20 minutes outside of Fresno, California, served as vice president of her class. “Where I come from, you're not really prepared for a four-year college,” she explained. But Mills' four-week Summer Academic Workshop (SAW), a program for first-generation college students, equipped her for the academic journey. “SAW was really rigorous, and once regular classes started, I felt like the people I met in SAW were family.”
Gloria holds a degree in both ethnic studies and international relations, and she hopes to work for the United Nations. Gloria was proud to attend a women's college and wished she could have been part of the 1990 strike that led to Mills' recommitment to women's education. “I saw a video about the protests, and it made me want a shirt that says, ‘Better dead than coed.’ And I found one!”
Gloria was grateful for the scholarships she's received at Mills. Gloria said, “I've taken out some loans, but compared to the value of a Mills education, it's nothing. When I found out that the Reva Coon scholarship came directly from an alumna, I made sure to convey my gratitude to Cris Russell.”
Katie Sanborn ’83 made the gift that inaugurated Mills' Named Scholarship Program in 2006 to honor the memory of her grandmother, Ruby L. Harp, the first woman in her family to attend college and a great believer in the value of education. Another reason Katie provided the scholarship gift was because, she says, “Mills supported me financially when I needed it.”
Mills awarded the Ruby L. Harp Scholarship to first-year nursing student Kendra Murthil in fall 2007, and, that spring, Katie and Kendra met at a dinner on campus. Katie says, “Meeting Kendra was the fulfillment of the opportunity Mills gave me to contribute. She embodies the Mills spirit and is bright, determined, and independent. She will be an excellent nurse, and I'm happy to be able to help make this possible.”
Kendra Murthil considered becoming a doctor but decided on a career in nursing in order to have more contact with patients. She chose Mills because of the generous scholarships the College offers, which minimized the educational loans she requires, and because of the College's unique Nursing Program, which prepares students to earn a bachelor of science in nursing in just four years.
While healthcare is her career focus, Mills gave Kendra the opportunity to take classes outside her major, like philosophy. She loved the diversity and the range of ideas she heard on campus, the focus on women, and the small class sizes that gave her a chance to voice her own opinion.
Kendra was happy to be able to meet Katie: “How many people actually get to meet the people who provided their scholarship? Katie told me about how her grandmother's first job was in a hospital. What a cool coincidence that I want to work in a hospital too!”