Matt Cufari, a senior physics major in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), a computer science major in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, a Coronat Scholar and a member of the Renée Crown University Honors Program, has…
A Gift to Inspire Innovation by Bringing Opportunity to Diverse Talent
It was the mid-1960s and Nicholas “Nick” Donofrio G’71, H’11 described it as a “great time” for electrical engineers. They were in huge demand and the young graduate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute took a job at IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York. That’s where he was introduced to Syracuse University. The University offered an extension program at IBM, sending professors to the Hudson Valley offices to provide graduate courses on site to full-time employees.
The bond between Donofrio and Syracuse University grew so strong that it inspired his service and philanthropy, as he saw opportunities to help new generations of students with generous gifts that went beyond dollars.
“They brought opportunity directly to me,” says Donofrio. Syracuse professors understood that those IBM engineers needed to keep up with the latest research to be prepared to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world. “I don’t think they knew the future any better than anybody else, but I think they knew change better than anybody else and they were committed to preparing us for change.” Donofrio completed a master’s degree in a few years, furthering his knowledge of circuit and chip and computer design theory and enabling him to remain on the leading edge of integrated chip design development.
Donofrio spent 44 years at IBM, working his way up to become executive vice president of innovation and technology. But it was those early days that helped lay the foundation for his thinking on innovation and his philanthropic gifts to Syracuse University, where he is a life trustee of the Board of Trustees. He was truly inspired by the fact that the University brought opportunity to him and other talent, encouraging lifelong learning. Unfortunately, he says, today’s higher education price tag limits opportunities for diverse talent—especially students from underrepresented groups—and Donofrio dedicates his philanthropy to changing that because he is convinced that innovation requires diversity of thought and experiences. He says diversity is “the underpinning of innovation in any industry—and crucial to our ability to compete on a global scale.”
In an article published earlier this year by the National Academy of Engineering, he wrote that “innovation doesn’t just ‘happen.’ It is enabled by environments and organizations that foster open, collaborative, inclusive, multidisciplinary thinking and working. Time and again, I have been reminded that the more open and inclusive the team, the more successful it is—because nobody knows in advance which team member is going to supply a critical piece of the value puzzle.”
“This is a particularly vexing problem in technology and the STEM disciplines,” says Donofrio. “We are very weak on diversity, gender diversity and people of color diversity. As hard and as long as we have been working to address the issues here, progress as measured by numbers has been grudgingly modest.”
With a recent generous gift to the Forever Orange Campaign, Donofrio is building upon a program he inspired several years ago. In 2012, his philanthropy established the Donofrio Scholars program in the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS), providing scholarships to students of promise from diverse backgrounds for SummerStart, a six-week session to smooth the transition from high school to college for newly admitted students by giving them an opportunity to become familiar with the University’s academic, social and cultural life.
The Donofrio Scholars program evolved into the ECS Ambassadors program, which provides first-year students with stipends, membership to a professional society, tutoring, career mentoring with alumni and a summer internship. In their second year, students serve as ambassadors to K-12 students in Syracuse city schools—tutoring, mentoring and engaging students in fun engineering and computing projects—and helping to establish a pathway for youngsters to pursue STEM careers.
These programs are clearly working, with Donofrio-funded scholars succeeding well beyond statistical expectations—with retention rates at 93%, graduation rates at 100% and career success awaiting.
“Nick’s passion for bringing opportunity to talented engineers and computer scientists is fully evident throughout his career. His gift is another example of his commitment and remarkable impact,” says J. Cole Smith, ECS dean. “The programs that his gift supports will strengthen our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in every aspect of a student’s experience. By focusing on supporting underrepresented groups in and out of the classroom, Nick will continue mentoring the next generation of STEM leaders.”
ECS was recently awarded bronze level status from the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) Diversity Recognition Program. The program’s goal—aligned with Donofrio’s goals—is to help promote diversity, equity and inclusion in member colleges and in the professional world.
Donofrio is now writing a book called “If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes” and he says he’s running out of patience. “I don’t have to be patient at my age. I want to finish the work I started,” says Donofrio who believes that “talent abounds everywhere” without regard to gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity or nationality. He intends for his philanthropy to help ECS recognize, recruit and support diverse talent and provide opportunities and options for them to thrive—throughout the college.
“They are going to graduate and go to work as technically enlightened people,” he says. “They are also going to be more innovative than anybody else. They are going to graduate as better people, fit for the rest of their lives.”
About Syracuse University
Syracuse University is a private research university that advances knowledge across disciplines to drive breakthrough discoveries and breakout leadership. Our collection of 13 schools and colleges with over 200 customizable majors close the gap between education and action, so students can take on the world. In and beyond the classroom, we connect people, perspectives and practices to solve interconnected challenges with interdisciplinary approaches. Together, we’re a powerful community that moves ideas, individuals and impact beyond what’s possible.
About Forever Orange
Orange isn’t just our color. It’s our promise to leave the world better than we found it. Forever Orange: The Campaign for Syracuse University is poised to do just that. Fueled by 150 years of fearless firsts, together we can enhance academic excellence, transform the student experience and expand unique opportunities for learning and growth. Forever Orange endeavors to raise $1.5 billion in philanthropic support, inspire 125,000 individual donors to participate in the campaign, and actively engage one in five alumni in the life of the University. Now is the time to show the world what Orange can do. Visit syracuse.edu/foreverorange to learn more.