The Gift of Education: A Family’s Commitment to JWU Students

An education is the bedrock of any success. For David Wilson, Ph.D., '99 Hon.; P'98 and Jane Wilson P'98, making an exceptional education accessible to deserving students is a lifelong passion, which they've shared with Johnson & Wales University for more than 25 years. Today, the Wilsons are re-affirming that commitment and inviting the entire JWU community to join them in making experiential learning opportunities available to Wildcats in need.

In the early 90s, David Wilson knew very little about Johnson & Wales. As a member of the National Board of the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, he became acquainted with fellow board member and Chancellor Emeritus John Bowen '77 who began sharing stories from the university. David had long understood the transformative value of an education and donated to every school he'd ever attended. But through his conversations with Chancellor Bowen, he began to understand what makes the JWU model so unique and the students so special.

When David became the National Argentier (Treasurer), one of his objectives was to establish a foundation within the Chaîne to provide scholarships for culinary and hospitality students. In David's mind, none were more deserving of this support than JWU students, so he reached out to Chancellor Bowen with an offer of $25,000 for a needs-based scholarship. And so began a longstanding relationship between Johnson & Wales and The Chaîne Foundation, which has contributed more than $800,000 in charitable donations. David was hooked and has been involved with JWU ever since. During his career he served as a member of the Corporation and upon retirement, he was invited to serve on the Board of Trustees.

After Sean Wilson '98 graduated from high school, he spent a gap year working three jobs. David and Jane's son always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and as a kid he and a friend would build computer games on the family's 1985 Macintosh. Without any prompting or much discussion, Sean applied to Johnson & Wales in Providence and soon after was attending orientation with his parents. David began seeing JWU through an entirely new lens. "What I found most appealing was the university's commitment to experiential learning—the chance to practice what you learn," recalls David. Sean seized his opportunity, quickly becoming involved with the Computer Lab and graduating with a bachelor's degree from the College of Hospitality Management in just 32 months.

A proud JWU dad, David says, "The educational content was, without a doubt, exceptional. But, the most powerful values Sean cultivated at JWU were the commitment and dedication that one needs to thrive." David and Jane still see these core values in Sean's work ethic today. Like so many alumni, Sean was well-prepared for his first job after graduation and David points to this as one of the key differentiators between JWU and other schools. "The JWU student," he notes, "has already experienced a touch of the world outside the campus."

As a JWU alumnus, Sean accepted a position with Hyatt in Reston, VA. During a management training program, he met fellow JWU alum and Hyatt employee Erin Downs '98. Also a graduate of the College of Hospitality Management in Providence, Erin and Sean had somehow never met as students, but the wait was worth it. Sean and Erin tied the knot and are currently raising two children, Briggs and Maggie.

As the parent of an alum, a Trustee, an honorary degree recipient and a donor, David is fully immersed in Johnson & Wales. His family's philanthropic interests are diverse, but education remains a top priority and according to David, "the one school that ranks at the top of the list is JWU." His experience as a donor reinforces his belief that Wildcats have limitless potential when opportunities are accessible.

America's exceptional education system excels because private donors are committed to it. Most successes are a complex mélange of factors, but one critical element in most portfolios is education, and often one or two special professors.
- David A. Wilson, Ph.D., '99 Hon.; P'98


Several years ago, David was invited to campus to present checks from The Chaîne Foundation to four students. "Each student was the first in her family to attend college," David remembers, "and each one had a dream. One wanted to work in a school or correctional system to improve the quality of food being served. One wanted to open a bakery in Providence or her hometown, and another wanted to be a Michelin-Starred chef. The final student planned to stay at JWU to earn a graduate degree. Her sister was living with a serious medical condition that placed severe restrictions on her diet. This student wanted the opportunity to study the science of food and help those with limitations like her sister. Once you meet those students, you see what a university can be."

While the Wilsons have historically supported scholarships and financial aid, they are quick to see the importance of the JWU Emergency Fund. David points out, "not every student financial need is for tuition or fees." He thinks back to his time as a visiting professor at Harvard Business School in the late 70s, when he shared an office with a new assistant professor who was Japanese by birth. Long before the era of cell phones, this young professor went away with friends for the weekend and was unreachable. Sadly, his father passed away in Tokyo and the family could only get in touch with the dean. When the professor returned on Sunday evening, the dean was there to meet him with a plane ticket to Tokyo and some cash. "Ever since that weekend," David says, "Jane and I have kept a reservoir of cash handy to help anyone in need. By designating a portion of our recent gift to the JWU Emergency Fund, we want to provide JWU with that metaphorical 'ticket to Tokyo' if that unfortunate moment ever occurs for a student."

David and his family continue to increase their personal financial support of JWU students while inspiring others to join them. In December 2020, they generously sponsored a matching gift challenge to close out 2020 on a positive note. 

"So many JWU students are the first in their families to attend university," David notes. "Many families are unable to contribute much to their child's education and almost all JWU students rely on full- or part-time wages. But the jobs they counted on to pay for the next semester are not there."

Whether you are a loyal donor and member of the Mary & Gertrude Society or you have not yet made your first gift to JWU, you can lend your support today. Together, gifts from the entire JWU community can truly make an impact. "Every journey begins with a single step, no matter the size," says David. "But that single step may change someone's life."

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