WILKES-BARRE — The fifth annual Wilkes University Founders Gala brought over 400 people Saturday to the Westmoreland Club for a night of dinner, music, and a chance to raise money to help the school’s first-generation students.
State Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski said he was once a first-generation student himself at Wilkes, and that’s why it was important for him to be at the gala.
Pashinski graduated with a degree in music education, which he said defined his life.
“For over 30 years, I was a teacher,” he said. “Not only teaching, but encouraging students.”
University president Patrick Leahy said the gala, created at the same time as the establishment of the First Generation Scholarship fund, is an annual tradition that provides an opportunity for first-generation students to attend Wilkes.
“After those first-generation students exhaust other grants and scholarships available to them, they often have a gap — it could be $1,000 or $10,000 — that’s where the First Generation scholarship comes in and makes it possible for them to attend our university,” he said.
Last year, the fund disbursed over $500,000 to those students, according to Leahy.
“About 52 percent of our undergrads are first generation,” he said. “That’s a big part of who we are.”
In addition to raising money for the scholarships, the Founders Gala is also the occasion at which Wilkes University awards the President’s Medal to someone who has been especially supportive of the university.
Lawrence Cohen, a 1957 graduate, accepting that honor this year.
Leahy said Cohen, chairman of Benco Dental, embodies the spirit of generosity and community that makes the university’s continuing success possible.
“Few people in our history have been more supportive of our university,” said Leahy. “It’s so fitting that he should receive this high honor.”
Mario Giovanelli, an employee of Benco, said Cohen was wonderful to work for and is one of the most genuine people he knows.
“I’ve worked for the company for over 40 years and when I’ve had problems, he’s always been there,” he said.
Three of this year’s graduating class, all first-generation students, addressed attendees, reaffirming the importance of financial support and encouragement in their educational journey.
Nancy Ramirez said when she had trouble paying her balance at the end of her senior year, she was awarded a scholarship to offset the debt.
One day, she hopes to use her degree in criminology to continue the cycle of generosity, assisting other students.
Margaret Galatioto said during her senior year of high school, she received a call from Leahy himself, informing her she would receive a First Generation scholarship.
“I’m proud to have graduated from a university that ensures all its students will exceed if they are willing to work hard,” she said.
Galatioto is heading off to graduate school, planning to then go to medical school.
Joshua Evans said although his parents did not attend college, they were ever-mindful of its importance.
Evans, who received his degree in nursing, said the university provided financial and other assistance that made his success possible.
He also was a member of the wrestling team for four years.
“They were a wonderful team that came to be like family,” he said. “I’m here tonight, in part, to represent that team.”
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George said he attended the gala to support not only the scholarship fund, but the college.
“Wilkes is not just a college,” he said. “It’s a wonderful reflection on the city.”