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Waikato students can “breathe easy” thanks to the Thomas Pay-it-Forward Scholarship

31 October 2019

Tauranga’s Jay and Teri Thomas are the donors of the new Thomas Pay-it-Forward Scholarship for students at the University of Waikato.

Whatever step of the tertiary journey a student is on, ‘struggle street’ is a destination all would rather avoid. The worry of making financial ends meet can be a barrier to some students starting or completing their qualification.

A new scholarship available to University of Waikato students aims to alleviate that pressure for successful candidates, whether they have just completed the first year of their bachelor’s degree or they are in the last year of their PhD. It’s come about thanks to the generosity of Tauranga entrepreneurs, Jay and Teri Thomas. Jay is also a University of Waikato alumnus.

The Thomas Pay-it-Forward Scholarship will be awarded on the basis of academic potential and serious financial hardship, or personal circumstances that may hinder the candidate’s ability to continue studying and complete their undergraduate, masters or doctoral degree. Awarded annually, up to two scholarships a year will provide a tuition fees credit of up to $5,000 per person.

The Dean of the School of Graduate Research, Professor Kay Weaver, says the Thomases are an excellent example of University of Waikato friends and alumni making a difference in the world. “Jay and Teri have thought really carefully about where their help was most needed and talked to us about where they can have an impact. Their pragmatic support will remove some barriers for the scholarship winners and allow them to go on and hopefully help others in turn.”

The Donors – Jay and Teri Thomas

On the day of their interview, Jay and Teri Thomas pull up to the University of Waikato’s Tauranga campus in a Range Rover bearing the licence plate Sloth. It’s the pilot vehicle for their new business venture, 7 Deadly Sins, specialising in guided luxury car tours around the Bay of Plenty and Waikato regions. When describing the car’s occupants though, the plate smacks of irony.

The couple, high school sweethearts from Wisconsin, USA, have worked hard for what they have. The pair have been successful in their respective fields, Jay in IT and Teri in medical software, yet despite their many accomplishments it was hard going in the early days.

“I was dirt poor,” admits Teri who put herself through school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was a straight A student, graduated with a Bachelor of Zoology with Honours and passed her pre-med requirements with the goal of becoming a doctor. “As an undergrad I was working three jobs to make rent while watching my student debt climb. There were times I’d live off bread and potatoes and couldn’t afford toilet paper. It was tough.”

When Teri took a job with a medical software company it was meant to be a temporary measure to pay down some debt and get back to medical school. She ended up staying with the company for 20 years. “I did well and, at one level, it was brilliant for my career yet if I’d had more financial support as a student I’d be a doctor now which was always my dream,” she says.

Jay too was juggling his studies while working multiple part-time jobs and, like Teri, found the financial burden too much. “When you’re trying to pay rent, food and bills taking on extra jobs or more debt can cause a rise in the stress levels and a drop in the grades.” He got into IT by accident during the dotcom days when he says it was possible to “ride the wave” without a formal qualification. He enjoyed a successful career in the industry for 20 years yet still held out hope he’d complete his degree, trying several times at five different universities to knock it off.

Fast-forward to 2016 when the Thomas family holidayed in New Zealand and decided they wanted to make it home. A year later they made the move, partly to escape the political divisiveness in the States but mainly because Kiwi values aligned better with their own. Their two teenage sons are relishing the laid-back lifestyle, surfing, going barefoot, and have a greater enjoyment of school. Tauranga Boys’ College is a world away from the middle school they attended in the USA where full-time armed police officers and active shooter drills were the norm.

“It’s nice to be part of a school community with a family-friendly environment,” says Teri. “When I pick up my son from college for an orthodontist appointment, I don’t get a pat down.”

The move created opportunities for the whole family to ‘live the dream’ and Jay decided it was time to get the degree. He enrolled in a Master of Information Technology at the University of Waikato and drove to Hamilton four days a week for classes. Teri admits she’s more than a little proud of her husband’s determination and tenacity. “It’s been great role modelling for our boys, seeing their dad place such importance on education and work so hard,” says Teri. “Getting a degree isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.”

Which is how the Thomas Pay-it-Forward Scholarship came about. Jay came up with the idea shortly after graduating at the newly built Tauranga campus. “I’d been harping on to my kids about the importance of going to university, even though I never graduated with my undergraduate degree. I’m actually an example of what not to do,” laughs Jay. “Once you get a job, have a family and other commitments take priority, it’s really hard to go back to study. It’s better to get it out of the way early.”

“I figured if we could help someone else out, at least part of the financial pressure could be alleviated so they can just go to school,” says Jay. “Instead of having two or three jobs maybe they can have one job and pay rent and eat - even for one year.”

Teri says the idea for the scholarship was 100% Jay’s but she is supportive of it.

I don’t like to see people who have potential not realise that potential,” says Teri. “If this scholarship can help one person get over the line because of a little unexpected support we gave, that would mean the world to us.”

Says Jay: “There are some smart, talented, motivated, capable people out there who may just not have the resources to make it through. We’d like to have somebody be able to breathe easier to finish their degree.”

Scholarship applications

Applicants should be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident intending to enrol full-time in the second year or above of their first undergraduate degree, or be completing a masters or PhD at the University of Waikato in the year of tenure. Applications for 2020 close on 15 November 2019.

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