The 17-year-old from Boston had no hope of getting into the ILR School or of being able to pay for it -- her single mother was a first-grade public school teacher.
"The day that letter arrived was the best day of my life," said Eva Sage-Gavin '80, recalling news of her scholarship. "You really can come from anywhere and have a shot. It was extraordinary."
Sage-Gavin, executive vice president of global human resources and corporate affairs for The Gap Inc., a 132,000-employee international retailer based in San Francisco, received ILR's Groat Award March 29 in New York City. Tracy Dolgin '81 received the Alpern Award.
Sage-Gavin, as a teenager fresh to Cornell, was thrilled, terrified and busy. She completed 20 to 30 work-study hours weekly at Catherwood Library and later at the Willard Straight Hall desk. A packed schedule cultivated a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-things-done style that has propelled her into the highest reaches of human resource leadership.
In ILR classrooms, Sage-Gavin was excited by ideas: "Some of the work we did was so far ahead of the time in diversity, inclusion, work-family balance." From professors such as Lee Dyer, Michael Gold, Jennie Farley and Larry Williams, Sage-Gavin absorbed different points of view "so that you can be respectful of everyone," she said.
Michael Reid, ILR career adviser, helped Sage-Gavin transition from campus to work, and sorority sister Deborah K. Smith '70 recruited her for her first post-graduation job at Xerox. There and at PepsiCo, Disney and other corporations, "I was bringing fresh ideas to some truly great companies," she said. "I felt extremely well prepared."
Thirty-two years after graduating, Sage-Gavin says, "I owe my success to Cornell. Period." Success comes with strings attached, she said, including 17 relocations and loss of family time with her husband, Dennis Gavin, and their 16-year-old daughter, Christina.
At every career juncture, a Cornell mentor emerged to help her go to the next level, she said. As a result, Sage-Gavin said, "I can never give back enough."
A member of Cornell Silicon Valley Advisors, she serves on a number of university and ILR boards and is a former chair of ILR's Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.
Sage-Gavin's interest in philanthropy extends through her work overseeing the Gap Inc. Foundation. Last year, 59,600 Gap employees volunteered 433,000 hours through the company's community service programs.
In September, the Clinton Global Initiative recognized The Gap's Personal Advancement Career Enhancement program for its work with women in developing countries.
Dozens of ILR undergraduates were among the 400 gathered at the Pierre Hotel near Central Park Thursday to honor her and Alpern Award winner Dolgin.
Asked what advice she would share with students, Sage-Gavin offered, "Discover what you're passionate about. Do what you love and good things will happen." "Don't be shy about leveraging your network." And "Give back. Take others with you."
Mary Catt is assistant director of communications at the ILR School.