Ari Garcia Paying It Forward

Scholarship alum Ari Garcia (’19) gives to JMU to help even more Dukes


SUMMARY: Ari Garcia (‘19) says it was a scholarship that changed her life and helped her achieve her dream of earning a college diploma—and eventually land a promising job at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Now, she’s fulfilling the vision of the Dukes Pay It Forward scholarship initiative and financially contributing to a scholarship for a future Duke.

“I've experienced the impact that a scholarship can make,” Garcia said. “[Giving back] is an opportunity for me to not only show my gratitude … [but] to help others.”

Garcia, who immigrated to the United States with her family when she was in the eighth grade, made education her priority when she first settled in Roanoke, Virginia. But it wasn’t until her senior year that she decided she wanted to pursue college.

She says she remembers hearing from people who went to JMU and how excited they were to share about their alma mater.

“No matter how much time it had been, they were so excited to tell me about JMU,” said Garcia.

She says she shares that same feeling now and even visits campus whenever she’s driving up Interstate 81 to go back to Roanoke from her current home in Northern Virginia. “JMU has always had a really special place in [her] heart,” Garcia said, but her journey to stay a Duke wasn’t always easy.

Garcia’s decision to pursue college meant she’d be paying her own way. So she found a few grants and an on-campus job to help make ends meet her freshman year. But as those grants ended, she was left, once again, at the drawing board.

“After that first year, you start realizing, ‘I have three more years, and it's expensive,” Garcia said. “So that summer before my sophomore year, I didn't know if I was going to be able to go back [to JMU].”

Garcia decided to apply for additional scholarship opportunities, hoping for the chance to finish her degree and received a Dukes Pay It Forward scholarship, made possible by Mike (’76, ’77M, ’07P, ’10P, ’15P) and Kathy (’78, ’07P, ’10P, ’15P) Thomas, during the first semester of her sophomore year. 

“Getting the news that I was going to be able to get additional support through a scholarship, and that it was renewable for the duration of my college years … it was a big sigh of relief,” said Garcia. “It really gave me reassurance that I could continue my education and continue on the path ... to achieve my goal of graduating.” 

“[As] a first generation student, that was huge for me to have the assurance that this was possible for me, and that I could continue,” she said.

What Garcia didn’t know at the time was how much the Thomases, whom she met when receiving her scholarship, would end up meaning to her, too. 

“They invited [the other recipients and me] out to dinner in Harrisonburg, and they were very interested in truly getting to know us, what our interests [were] … what we were studying, and getting to know about our families and our journeys,” remembered Garcia. “So, that was the first thing that really struck me about Mike and Kathy … that these people really want to get to know me, too.”

Garcia said the Thomases also shared their own journeys as Dukes and their vision for their scholarship initiative, which they started in 2016 as a way to support current students, who they hope will pay it forward by supporting future Dukes. 

Garcia said Kathy and Mike encouraged her to make the most of her time at JMU and “get the best experience possible.”

“I think the scholarship definitely did that for me,” said Garcia, adding that when she was no longer worried about how she would financially support herself through college, she was able to focus more on her studies. 

Garcia double majored in international affairs and economics, and also completed a research assistantship in the College of Business, where she worked alongside a JMU professor and several other professors from Japan to study if and how customer preferences are passed down from parents to children.

“I think it was one of my favorite parts about the major,” Garcia said. “It was incredible … having that opportunity … [and] to get to have that hands-on experience.”

Garcia said it was her time at JMU that really allowed her to develop the skills and form the connections that have led to a promising career.

“My education and my experience ... at JMU really gave me a good foundation to be able to explore different things and open myself up to different career paths,” said Garcia. 

Garcia is now a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, where she currently works with the Department of Labor— a position that combines her interests in policy and data science. 

“Since graduating in May 2019, my career has just really evolved, really grown, which is kind of amazing to reflect back [on] and see how much I've learned and how much I've changed, too,” Garcia said.

Garcia says she’s thankful to JMU and the Thomases for helping her get to this position. 

“Without the opportunity to be at JMU, I don't know if my experience would have been the same—not only ... my education, but the people that I met here, the people who supported me to be here, and the people who helped me to transition out of JMU,” Garcia said, referring to the Thomases, who she says have continued to help her with their advice and guidance. “I think all of those things really came together and ultimately really formed my experience.”

She said she’s excited for the opportunity to pay it forward and help fulfill the Thomases’ vision. 

“Being able to give back to JMU has really allowed me to see myself as part of the Dukes Pay It Forward scholarship vision … [and] that really means a lot to me,” Garcia said. “I know firsthand how much the scholarship meant to me, so it's really exciting for me that now I'm able to be in a position where I'm potentially helping another student in that journey for themselves, and hopefully, that they also will be able to see themselves as part of that vision.”

“I think education, ultimately, has been the key for me in my life,” said Garcia. “So I'm happy to play a part in helping [another] student succeed … who may have the same aspirations, the same dreams, the same passion to continue.” 

Garcia says she hopes others will join her in this initiative as JMU seeks to open its doors to new Dukes from all walks of life. 

“My relationship with the Thomases and being a recipient of the Dukes Pay for Scholarships has changed my perspective on philanthropy as not just being financial … but also the guidance that the Thomases have provided, the encouragement, the connections, the trust and belief that I could achieve the things that I set my mind to,” Garcia said. “[It’s] helping people in achieving what they set themselves to do.”

“So, I think it's important that if you're in a position where you can give ... you see the purpose, and that it's impacting a person's life.”

— Sarah Featherstone

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Published: Friday, October 1, 2021

Last Updated: Wednesday, February 21, 2024

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