Irwin Jacobs’s high school guidance counselor told him there was no future in science and engineering, so he enrolled at Cornell University and studied hotel administration.

By the time he was a sophomore, though, he doubted the advice and transferred into engineering. “I would never have been able to finish Cornell after a change like that without the help of a scholarship,” says Jacobs, who along with his wife, Joan — who also received state support at Cornell — never forgot those lean days. Irwin attended graduate school at MIT with support from a G.E. fellowship.

Recently, Irwin and Joan Jacobs gave MIT $30 million to support graduate fellowships in electrical engineering and computer science. “It was very important for us to have scholarship support. And if we benefited, we think there are many others who can benefit as well,” adds Irwin Jacobs, now founder and chairman of Qualcomm of San Diego, a world leader in digital wireless communication.

The gift will establish the Irwin Mark Jacobs and Joan Klein Jacobs Presidential Fellowships, which will support at least 15 Jacobs Presidential Fellows each year. The first Fellows will be named in the fall of 2008.

“We’re very pleased that we are able to make this gift,” Joan Jacobs says, adding that the couple is pleased to have the opportunity for philanthropy. “Giving has been part of our lives even as young people. We have always wanted to participate in giving back on whatever level we were able.”

Irwin adds that their dream is to make it possible for students to attend grad school who otherwise would not be able to go. “We hope this gift will allow students to pursue a graduate career at MIT, then go on to become successful and help other students do the same thing.”

THE LAST THING

Irwin Jacobs’s parents owned a seafood restaurant in New Bedford, MA, where he was born. “The last thing I would have imagined growing up was that I’d be successful in business,” he says. “It was really beyond my thoughts.”

Jacobs earned a master’s in electrical engineering in 1957 and a Ph.D. in 1959. He was an assistant and associate professor of electrical engineering at MIT from 1959 to 1966. Then he got a call from a Cornell professor, who said they were beginning a department of electrical engineering at the University of California at San Diego, and would he join them?

Jacobs moved his family west. Two years later, he co-founded Linkabit, which virtually created the digital communications industry in San Diego with more than 35 spinoffs. He was floored by the success of the company.

He retired in 1985, but after three months was eager to work again. He co-founded Qualcomm, now a world leader in digital wireless technology with a $60 billion market cap and 10 consecutive years on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For, which ranked eighth in 2008.

Nearly three billion people now own cell phones, he says. And the market is growing, particularly in South America, Africa, India, and China. Cell phones serve as mobile computers, he says, and either now or soon will support DVD-quality camcorders, mobile TV, 3G graphics and games, GPS, financial services, voting and medical sensing technologies.

“Over time,” he says, “not only will everyone carry a cell phone, but they will rely on them for a broad variety of services.”

USEFUL TO MILLIONS

Jacobs says that the most exciting aspect of the work is to develop an idea that becomes useful to millions of people. “It’s just a great satisfaction going from an idea you weren’t sure would work to something that is helpful to many.”

Joan adds that her husband’s focus has always been on developing new ideas and whatever benefits came along with that. “His focus was never on earning money,” she says, adding that the wealth was simply a by-product of his good intentions. And yet, the money has given them the chance to be generous.

“There are so many rewards to giving back,” Joan says. “I think it is one of the real pleasures in life.”

For fun, the couple — who have four sons, who have all worked at Linkabit or Qualcomm — enjoy collecting contemporary art. They also love the symphony, theater, and classical music.

“I wish I had more time,” Irwin is saying. “Right now my greatest frustration is that my pile of unread books is continuing to grow.

“I wish I had more time for reading, more time for music, more time for art, more time for family. My work has been very successful, but time is my main limitation.”