Tufts undergraduate alumni recount the ways in which the associate dean’s support shaped their lives
It’s the end of an era: After 35 years of enabling Tufts undergraduates to pursue an education and subsequent careers, Patricia Reilly, associate dean of financial aid, is retiring.
The impact Reilly has had on the lives of students and their families during her time at the university defies measurement, according to former students with whom she worked (not to mention their families). As Pooja Beri, A15, puts it: “I simply would not be the person I am today if it had not been for Patty Reilly and what she made possible for me.”
Reilly came to Tufts in 1987 with firsthand knowledge of the transformative power of financial aid. In an interview for a video about the Schuler Access Initiative, she opened up about her own experiences. “I’m a first-gen student,” she says. “I grew up in Boston in Jamaica Plain. Being able to participate in a program that’s going to bring more first-generation, low-income kids into Tufts is near and dear to my heart.” As one of seven children, “I could never have gone to college without financial aid—it just wouldn’t even have been an option,” she explains in another interview. “So I completely get what that [support] means for a student.”
Below, to honor Reilly as she retires, Tufts alumni and their families who benefited from her guidance talk about how Reilly paved a path for them—with generosity and empathy—that helped get them where they are today.
“She showed us how to ask for help.”
Twin sisters Jheneal, A19, and Jheanelle Atkinson, A19, arrived at Tufts with a plan for financing their pre-med studies in biology. They worked shifts in shipping/receiving at the local Old Navy from 4 to 7 a.m. three days a week, then drove to campus from their affordable but faraway neighborhood to attend morning classes, and in the afternoons, they worked second jobs as pharmacy assistants.
“I don’t want to say Ms. Reilly scolded us when she found out our situation,” Jheneal says.
“Oh, she definitely scolded us,” interrupts Jheanelle.
The sisters weren’t used to asking for help. Beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, they had started college in their home state of Georgia more than 10 years before arriving at Tufts. Back then, they attended classes whenever their family could afford to send them: “We didn’t even really know about financial aid and other options,” Jheanelle says. “We just were brought up to figure things out for ourselves.”
When their grandfather fell sick, they left school to help their mother care for him, but they always knew they would go back some day. Accepted at Tufts as students in the Resumed Education for Adult Learning (REAL) program, they headed north, in part, Jheneal says, because Tufts was one of the only universities at the time that supported students with DACA or undocumented status.
“I’ll always remember what Ms. Reilly said the first time we met with her,” Jheanelle says: “‘I wish you had come to me sooner. You didn’t have to go through this alone; I’m here to help.’”
Reilly outlined options for the sisters, helping them to secure both scholarships and private loans. “Because of her intervention,” Jheneal explains, “knowing we didn’t have to stress about work and groceries and bills, we were able to do everything more easily. We moved closer to campus, which made getting to the library easier and made studying so much more convenient. Her actions contributed directly to our academic success. Our grades went up, and ultimately we graduated with honors. Also, she showed us that, in general, it’s okay to ask for help. Without her, we would not have been successful.”
Now, Jheneal and Jhenelle live in Georgia and work as managers for a global pharmaceutical company. They are starting medical school this year, and they credit Reilly with making that possible for them.
News of her retirement hit them hard; their hope is that her legacy will live on at Tufts. “Because of the impact she had on our lives,” Jheanelle says, “it was kind of devastating to hear that she is retiring. I hope that whoever takes over her role understands how important what they do is.”
“She was a sounding board.”
Before they retired, Anthony Mahoney-Pacheco’s parents were school teachers. With two other children heading to college around the same time as he was, they lacked the means to fund a Tufts education—yet he knew that Tufts was the place for him. Mahoney-Pacheco, A19, had received a generous financial aid package, but he was still expected to cover $20,000 of the cost of attending.
“I knew I was fortunate to have the opportunity,” he says, “but still, when you’re 18 years old, that’s a lot of money to have to come up with.”
Wanting to fully understand and optimize his aid, Mahoney-Pacheco met with Reilly during his first year. “I thought it was going to be a one-off thing: sit down with her and receive some guidance on how I could best finance my education. What ended up happening was that I met with her a minimum of once per semester, often more than once, to strategize for the future. I’m eternally grateful for that. She introduced me to opportunities I didn’t know were there. She took the time to listen and really understand my goals. And she personalized my aid to help me get through Tufts in the way that I wanted to.”
His objective: graduate Tufts with as little debt as possible. At the time, Mahoney-Pacheco’s goal was to become a doctor. Anticipating the money he’d have to borrow to finance medical school and then repay while earning a relatively small salary as a resident, he did not want to take on loans that would accrue interest while he was at Tufts.
Reilly embraced his goal and showed him how to take advantage of work study, other jobs, and subsidized loan opportunities. The result was a 40-hour (or more) workweek for Mahoney-Pacheco throughout his years as an undergrad. He started out as a food preparer in the university’s dining halls and became a student coordinator for Dining Services. Simultaneously, he worked as a resident assistant for first-years and served as an emergency department technician at a nearby hospital. He performed similar work throughout summer breaks.
“My experience working at hospitals helped me see that I no longer wanted to become a doctor,” he says. “Patty Reilly was a true sounding board for me as I went through the difficult process of letting go of old goals and defining new ones. She had seen me grow and develop, she had seen my determination and abilities as I found my way through paying for college, and she was incredibly helpful in having conversations with me about different fields I could consider. That wasn’t even her job.”
Today, Mahoney-Pacheco works as a healthcare investment banker in California. He’s still setting big goals for himself—one of them is to someday start a scholarship that can help students in positions similar to the one he found himself in. “It would be a way to pay forward what Patty Reilly did for me,” he says.
“She made everything possible.”
Pooja Beri, A15, had just started as a first-year student at Tufts when tragedy struck: her father became ill and died. “It was tough on us,” says Pooja’s mother, Aarti Beri. “In addition to dealing with emotions and taking care of Pooja’s younger sister, I had to figure out the finances. My husband had made payments at Tufts through December, and after that, it was all on me. It was like the sky had fallen on my head.”
“When she says the sky had fallen, she means from every angle,” Pooja clarifies. “We had a very patriarchal household. All the financial-, business-, and education-related responsibilities were my father’s. Imagine not knowing how to use a debit card or an ATM, not even knowing how to log into your own email, and calling someone in the U.S. from Dubai to talk about university financial aid. My mother started completely from scratch.”
Reilly helped make that start possible. “I received a beautiful note from her,” Aarti says, “in which she passed on her condolences and then took over completely. She understood that I needed extra support and guidance. She took the time to answer all my questions, stretch deadlines for me, and explain how everything worked. And she was never condescending; she just wished us well.” She even encouraged Aarti to continue learning how to function more independently. “When I finished the financial aid application, she sent me a note confirming that it was complete, and then she said, ‘Nice work!’ Words like that go a long way.”
Reilly’s support meant that Pooja could progress through her years at Tufts with a sense of security. “If I hadn’t had the full college experience, I wouldn’t be who I am now,” Pooja says. “I wouldn’t have the confidence to develop my career, run meetings, travel the world, and feel like I can be at home anywhere because I know there are kind-hearted people like Ms. Reilly out there. For us, she was the face of Tufts, and without Tufts, I wouldn’t have the life I have now.”
That life, as strategy director at an international advertising agency, involves no small amount of giving back. “I came to understand that so much of success is about access, which is what Ms. Reilly gave to me,” Pooja explains. She now lives in Toronto, but in a previous position based in the Middle East, she helped develop her organization’s internship program, with an emphasis on opportunities for women. Once the program was established, she began advocating for interns to receive stipends. As a team leader in her firm, she secured raises and mentorship opportunities for colleagues who were women, and now she continually looks out for ways to foster growth in others.
Aarti does the same—as a tutor in Dubai, she takes on students for free whenever possible. “We learned from Patty Reilly,” she says. “We are so grateful to her, and we keep her, as a person and as an example, in our thoughts all the time.”
Extending a Legacy of Impact
You can support financial aid for students at any school at Tufts with a gift to Brighter World: The Campaign for Tufts