“There is no better way to gain empathy, combat xenophobia and challenge a person to think outside themselves and their historical environment than travel abroad” according to Dan ’91 and Elise Gilbert. “My time spent abroad while at Union fundamentally changed my perspective and provided the key foundation for the success I’ve had in life – both personally and professionally,” explained Dan. This is why the couple’s charitable foundation recently made a gift commitment of $1,140,000 to support study away programs for Union students with financial need.
The Gilbert Family Charitable Foundation Endowed Study Away Fellowship will target funding five mini-term fellowships per year and also provide support for out-of-pocket expenses to another 12 to 15 students engaged in a full term away. The grant was set up to fund the endowment over the long term, while providing annual support for immediate impact on Union students.
Dan’s relationship with Union is a deep and interesting one. “My Union story really started with my father passing away when I was 15,” Dan reflected. “My mother was working and couldn’t accompany me on my visit to Union. I was waiting in Admissions by myself, and all these other kids had parents with them. I felt pretty alone and frankly a bit lost in life.”
“I interviewed with Coach Jim Schafer, who also worked in Admissions at the time. My story had traction with him, especially when my brother showed up at the end of the interview having driven all the way from Hobart to support me (as disheveled as he was). That spoke to the way my experience at Union would evolve. Union wrapped its arms around me at the right times and helped me find a positive path in life.”
Dan originally came to Union as a temporary situation as he had been admitted to Cornell for the spring term. “But, there were all these instances of different groups providing environments where I could be comfortable challenging myself – whether it was in my classes, my fraternity or the rugby team, and despite focusing a great deal on fun, the rugby team was one of the most tight-knit groups I have ever been a part of,” recalled Dan. His experiences and Union’s approach to him as a student made it clear that he had found the right place to earn a complete education. “Looking back, I know I was fairly angry and heading in a negative direction as a high school senior, but I was welcomed into this environment where I could really challenge my thoughts and boundaries, and I really responded to that.”
All that being said, Dan lost his connection to Union until his twin sons began looking at colleges, including Union, a few years ago. After that, and through additional outreach by both President David Harris and Principal Gift Officer Nick Famulare ’92, P’21, Dan and Elise became more involved again. “Elise and I started to look back on my experience more and felt it was long overdue to do something in return for Union,” Dan explained.
“In fact, Elise asked me why we weren't doing something meaningful to support Union. That was the moment it all clicked, and the College was incredibly supportive throughout our gift discussions. Elise recently asked me, ‘Doesn’t this just feel right?’”
Dan, now a private investor after a career running public real estate companies, and Elise, COO of Perch, a woman’s clothing retailer, attribute much of Dan’s success in business and life to his time at Union and especially his term and research experiences abroad. Those opportunities allowed him to also form an impactful relationship with George and Sharon Gmelch, professors of anthropology at Union.
“I signed up for an anthropology class with George as a prerequisite for the term abroad in Barbados – both of which I assumed I would cruise through…but nothing could be further from the truth. The class was not only challenging but highly engaging and really was the start of changing the way I thought about the world. My term abroad – which on paper seemed like a great way to spend the dark, cold, Schenectady winter on a warm beach – turned into one of the most difficult and hard-working times of my life, but also one of the most life changing.”
Dan’s term aboard also solidified his relationship with George and Sharon, with Dan later being invited by Sharon to apply for grant funding to go to Alaska to assist with her documentary film project on identity and cultural revitalization among the Tlingit of Sitka. “Anthropology in general, but my time in Alaska especially, taught me how to really listen to people and to figure out how to work with anyone – invaluable skills that have given me a great advantage in my career but are unfortunately becoming lost in today’s world.”
Dan’s life-changing experiences abroad with George and Sharon and Elise’s experiences as she traveled and worked all over the world for her career drove their decision to focus their gift on making study away opportunities possible for students who might not otherwise be able to go abroad.
Elise remarked, “When you spend time away, you realize how small your world is. It’s important to get out of your bubble and open your eyes. When you live outside the United States, you end up learning things that will impact you for the rest of your life.”
Dan added, “When I lived in Barbados, I was in the minority. I discovered that it was not a paradise for the majority of local residents. I lived with poor people in a poor village. I had never experienced anything like that being lucky enough to come from a middle-class background. I had to knock on doors in order to understand through ethnography the history and genealogy associated with each person in my village. I had the door slammed in my face repeatedly because I was white, and the people were rightfully suspicious of me.”
“I became friends, ultimately, with different groups of people in Barbados, got to see life through their perspectives and realize how much I approached people through a predetermined lens. It really changed my worldview.”
Dan and Elise have enjoyed reestablishing their connection with Union and with George and Sharon Gmelch. “We were looking at Union with our children and that eventually led to emails and then conversations with George and Sharon, thanks to Nick Famulare.”
“I cannot overstate the esteem and personal gratitude that I hold for the Gmelchs, the kindness they showed me, the examples they set for me, and creating opportunities for me to become better in so many different ways. They tend to underplay their generosity, but I would not be the person I am today without them. I wouldn’t have Elise, my two beautiful kids or my success in business that has now allowed us to give back to Union.”
When asked what they hoped to gain by this grant Elise commented, “I have known Dan since he was in grade school, and I have watched how his experiences at Union and abroad have shaped his life. We feel that this is the best way to have the greatest positive impact on students and in turn help create a world that is much more empathetic and more accepting of people’s differences.”
We at Union agree and very much look forward to seeing how this grant positively impacts the College far into the future.