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Kean University

Couple Leaves $850K to Kean, Expands Scholarship Fund for Future Teachers

Jenna Peterpaul at commencement at Prudential. To go with Vazquez story

Jenna Peterpaul '23 is a recipient of the Damarys Vazquez Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship fund will be expanded following a generous bequest from its founders.

An Elizabeth couple who created a Kean University scholarship in memory of their only daughter bequeathed the Kean University Foundation an additional gift of more than $850,000 from their estate to provide additional scholarships to aspiring teachers.

Damaryz and Alcibiades “Johnny” Vazquez’s daughter Damarys was an early childhood education major at Kean who graduated in 1998, then taught fourth grade in Elizabeth for four years before dying of complications from lupus in 2002. The following year, her grieving parents created a memorial fund in her name.

“Teaching was not a job for her – it was the fulfillment of a dream,” they wrote in a 2003 letter to friends and family about the fund.

The couple, beloved members of the Cuban immigrant community, made the additional bequest in their will. Mrs. Vazquez perished in a house fire in Elizabeth in 2021, four years after her husband passed away. 

The Damarys Vazquez Memorial Endowed Scholarship Fund has awarded one scholarship to an incoming Kean education major every year since it was created. 

With the couple’s generous bequest, the Fund now has a total value of nearly $1 million and will be able to help even more education students climb higher at Kean.

“This outstanding contribution comes at a time when there is a widespread teacher shortage across the state and our nation,” said Bill Miller, CEO of the Kean University Foundation. “The Vazquez estate gift will have a tremendous impact on increasing the number of scholarships awarded to aspiring teachers in Damarys’ name.” 

In the 2003 letter signed by both Vazquez parents, they describe Damarys as “a beautiful young woman who touched the lives of so many” during her brief lifetime.

“We are proud to honor her memory in such a meaningful way,” they wrote.

Damarys practically grew up in a dance studio owned by her mother, who had been a professional ballerina in Cuba and was known as a role model for women before her death at the age of 78.  

Damarys participated in community functions and dance recitals, frequently alongside her mother, and “radiated an inner beauty to those around her,” according to her parents.

The dance school sparked Damarys’ love of children. Despite challenges caused by her illness, she pursued her teaching degree and felt her place was in the classroom.

After her death, her parents sought to help other students “realize their dreams just as Damarys realized hers.”

Jenna Elizabeth Peterpaul of Roselle Park, a 2023 Kean graduate, found support for her dream. She received the Damarys Vazquez scholarship her freshman year at Kean, and graduated May 18 with her degree in early childhood education. 

She said she is “passionate” about teaching, and grateful to have received the scholarship.

“The Vazquez Scholarship allowed me to focus on my studies,” said Peterpaul, who plans to teach third grade in the fall. “I was able to take more courses to stay on track and graduate, rather than having to worry about working too many hours. 

“It makes me feel inspired that they helped so many people,” she said of the Vazquez family. “I appreciate that they really helped me, and they’re still doing it for other students.”