News | November 01, 2019

GivingUndergraduate Studies

Couple helps first-generation students as was done for them

For some, paying it forward is a vague concept; for others, it’s a steadfast commitment. Meet Joe and Lee Vumbacco, for whom paying it forward is not only a steadfast commitment, it’s also a way of life.

It all started in the late 1960s. The Vumbaccos married young, had their first child and, like so many young couples, struggled financially. Joe dreamed of becoming a lawyer; Lee enthusiastically supported that dream. However, as the son of working-class parents of little means and no formal education beyond high school, Joe would be a first-generation student whose family could not provide financial support. Nevertheless, he applied to and was admitted to Syracuse Law School. But, at the end of year one, with a faltering local economy, high unemployment and no money, Joe saw he would have to withdraw from Syracuse.

Spotlight photo of the Vumbassos' with students.
The Vumbaccos (center) with some of their scholarship recipients.

Not one to give up, he popped into the office of the dean of Syracuse Law School – literally “popped” unannounced but was graciously invited in – and explained his plight to Dean Robert W. Miller. Joe’s plan was to work fulltime for one year and save enough money to return; he was asking only that the dean hold his spot.

“Much to my amazement,” Joe said, “the dean looked at me and said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. I just looked up your grades, and we want you here. As of this moment you are on full scholarship, books paid and all.’ Dean Miller then went on to call a local law firm. He got me a job where I worked throughout my law school years. The dean understood my situation, made no demands of me and, frankly, changed my life.”

An experience like Joe’s makes an impression that can – and did – last a lifetime. Thanks, in large part, to this early financial jumpstart, the Vumbaccos’ life journey began an upward trajectory. Joe began his career in a high-profile law firm on Wall Street. He retired as CEO and president of a Fortune 600 corporation, Health Management Associates in Naples, realizing yet another milestone in his and Lee’s long and storied history.

“My wife and I are partners in every way,” he said. “She is, and has always been, an amazing support and shrewd advisor. We shared the raising of our two children, and we both worked hard. I couldn’t have grown in my career without her. And we wouldn’t have been as successful as we’ve been as a family.”

Which brings us quite nicely to paying it forward. As soon as they were able, the Vumbaccos began giving back. Once in Florida, the couple were immediately impressed with the “phenomenal growth record of FGCU.  “However,” he said, “it wasn’t until I joined FGCU’s Board of Trustees and had an up-close look at the administration, the professors and the programs that Lee and I knew we wanted to offer support to FGCU’s first-generation students.”

To that end, the Vumbaccos endowed the First-Generation Scholarship fund, administered by FGCU, which matches their contributions. To date, the couple has championed more than 40 students and enjoy meeting many of them at an annual luncheon.

“We’ve never forgotten what Dean Miller did for us, and Lee and I have spent many years doing whatever we can to give back,” Joe said. “We know what it means. Certainly, some of our scholarship recipients will have life-changing experiences and, perhaps, they, too, will be inspired to pay it forward.”