What can $17 million buy?

The Sobrato family gains title as largest donors in USF history with creation of the Sobrato Scholars Endowed Fund

L-R: John Michael Sobrato, Lisa Sobrato Sonsini, Sue Sobrato, John A. Sobrato, and Sheri Sobrato Brisson. PHOTO COURTESY OF USF OFFICE OF DEVELOPMENT COMMUNICATIONS

A private university committed to social justice, diversity and inclusion, and “addressing inequities” in the most expensive city in the U.S. can’t get by without a little help from its friends. Fortunately for USF, some of those friends include affluent philanthropic families like the Sobratos, who broke their own record of the largest gift made to USF by individuals with their $17 million donation in January.

The Sobrato family — composed of billionaire real estate developer John Albert Sobrato, his spouse Susan Sobrato, and their three children — claimed the title of the largest donors in USF history with their generous donation, skyrocketing the combined total of their gifts to $32 million. 

Signs of their influence can be seen all around USF. The Sobrato family name is on the recently renovated War Memorial Gymnasium, newly dubbed The War Memorial Gymnasium at the Sobrato Center, a transformation made possible by a $15 million gift from the family given in 2015, which was the previous record-holder for the largest single gift in USF’s history. Former donations from the family have also regularly gone toward the USF Athletics program, and contributed to the construction of Lone Mountain East Residence Hall, which began housing students last semester. With the Sobratos being Catholic real estate moguls based in the Bay Area, they have shown interest in building up the facilities of a local Jesuit university. However, with this new gift, they have shifted their focus to funding the futures of prospective USF students.

USF has earned its place as one of the top 20 most expensive universities in California, ranking No.14 in 2021 with a total cost of attendance reaching up to $67,292. However, for many of the students who commit to our University, financial aid packages and scholarships serve to drop the number on that price tag significantly. 

The Sobrato’s gift will fund another one of these scholarships, appropriately stamped with their name: The Sobrato Scholars Endowed Fund. The gift, as a part of the Changing the World From Here: Campaign for the University of San Francisco, jumpstarts this charitable program which will ease the financial burden on future USF students starting in the 2022-2023 academic year. It will fund four-year tuition relief scholarships for students from Cristo Rey high schools in the Bay Area, a network of schools dedicated to providing low-income students a college-preparatory education. If there are no applicants from these schools, the funds will be awarded to first-generation college students from the Bay Area.

“Many Cristo Rey graduates are the first in their families to graduate from high school and most are first-generation college students,” Rev. Peter Pabst, S.J., Chancellor of Cristo Rey San José Jesuit High School, and former USF Board of Trustee member, told the Office of Development Communications. “To focus a gift of a Jesuit education that supports these students is a wise investment as it highlights young people who have received a solid college-prep education and have an enviable resume of places they worked and gained all kinds of life skills.”

“The scholarship will fund the tuition gap in the costs of attendance after application of all other available forms of financial aid other than from USF’s own financial aid budget,” said Director of Development Communications Robin Dutton-Cookston. He also mentioned the scholarship will be awarded to first-year undergraduate students, and will be renewable annually through the completion of their undergraduate degree.

“We have long held that education is the gateway to opportunity,” John Albert Sobrato told the Office of Development Communications. “We hope this gift will make a great education accessible to more talented young people ready to contribute to society in their own unique and important ways.”

The groundbreaking gift pushed the total funds raised for the campaign closer to its $300 million goal. The campaign’s purpose is to fund scholarships and financial aid for USF students, as well as enhance campus facilities, and support new academic programs and initiatives. According to Dutton-Cookston, the campaign has funded over $120 million in scholarships to date, and has contributed to new campus facilities such as the Innovation Hive in the Harney Science Center, as well as funded the creation and maintenance of initiatives such as the Honors College, the Engineering program, Star Route Farms, and the Black Achievement Success and Engagement program (BASE). 

“Donors have quite a lot of freedom to direct philanthropy toward areas of campus that are most meaningful to them, as long as the funds are in alignment with the values and goals of the University,” Dutton-Cookston said. “Gifts of any size can also be given to the USF Fund, which is a general fund that allows for the greatest freedom of use toward the university’s highest priorities.” The average gift each year of the campaign is between $2,500 and $5,000, from more than 26,000 donors to date.

“We are well on the way to surpassing our $300 million goal,” Dutton-Cookston added. “This is an exciting time for the life of our University, but we still have important work to do. Even after the campaign officially ends on May 31, 2022, we will continue to make scholarships an ongoing priority for all fundraising efforts.” 

According to Dutton-Cookston, USF Financial Aid has seen a 271% increase in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) appeals for additional federal aid since the pandemic, while 83% of USF students receive financial aid, so continuing efforts to financially support students during their academic journey at USF is crucial. 

These scholarships are nothing without their beneficiaries. The campaign’s webpage hosts a list of stories detailing the impact the financial support had for USF alumni. Former students like Adam Snyder ‘01, who went on to open and manage seven restaurants in the Bay Area, Allison Littlefield ‘13, who was inspired by her opportunities to study abroad to give back to USF’s Global Immersions programs, and Nate Renfro ‘19, a former Dons star basketball player, all attribute part of their success to their college career supported by university scholarships.  

Next fall, the University plans to host a campus-wide celebration the weekend of Oct. 22, 2022 in honor of the close of the campaign. However, as Dutton-Cookston said, the end of the campaign will not mean the end of its impact. As long as students continue to commit to USF, the University will need to continue to commit to supporting them. 

Incoming students who are interested in applying for the Sobrato Scholars Endowment Fund scholarship should contact the Office of Financial Aid. 


One thought on “What can $17 million buy?

  1. Something is off about this announcement. I remember Father Fitz announcing a few years ago the largest gft to the university, at something over $20 million for professors salaries and the farm I think. I think it was at his fall meeting for the community. So how is it that this $17 million gift is the largest? Do they mean this plus the others that ths family gave?

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