The Fund for American Studies (TFAS) offers life-changing programs for young leaders. In addition to leadership skills, a better understanding of economics and a network of valuable connections, many TFAS alumni finish their programs with new friends by their side. Some alumni take it a step further and find their partners for life!
Juan and Ali Mejia provide one such example. The pair met in 2014 when they traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Fall Capital Semester program. They formed a connection and became friends quickly, spending much of their time together that semester. They began dating in 2015, got engaged in 2019, and celebrated their wedding in April 2021.
The semester-long program set the stage for Juan’s and Ali’s lives together. In Juan’s words, “Four months seven years ago made a world of difference.”
2014 Fall Capital Semester
Ali studied political science in college and knew she wanted to branch outside of her home university, Rhodes College. She weighed her options between a study abroad program and a semester in Washington. Her academic advisor suggested TFAS and assured her it would be the best program for her future career, so she decided to take a leap of faith and spend a semester in D.C.
Juan brought the idea of TFAS to his advisor at Lamar University. An economics major with a desire to live and work in the nation’s capital, Juan searched for D.C. internships and found TFAS. His advisor approved and off to Washington he went.
While flying to Washington, Juan scanned the students’ biographies to learn more about his classmates. Ali’s resume immediately stood out to him with all she had accomplished. He couldn’t help but notice her cute smile either, so he was excited to meet her when they arrived in D.C.
On the other hand, Ali wanted to focus solely on her classes and internship. She decided to participate in TFAS because she knew it would be good for her career, but she got much more out of the program than she expected.
“I feel like some of the biggest things I learned, not that they weren’t career-based, but I gained some of the most important things that round out my life today,” she shared. “I learned about balancing school and work at the same time, and I met my husband. I felt like I was exposed to so much more than just a career booster.”
During their TFAS semester, both Ali and Juan interned on Capitol Hill. Ali interned for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Juan for Rep. Ken Calvert of California. Now, Ali has graduated from law school, passed the bar exam and begun a judicial clerkship with the Calvert County Circuit Court in Maryland. Juan works as a communications analyst at a lobbying firm in their public affairs division. The pair credit their TFAS semester as the experience that combined their interests and showed them the career path to pursue.
Even seven years later, the pair distinctly remembers the lessons TFAS taught them and how Capital Semester prepared them for the future. Some of the most important takeaways were career-related, such as having patience, understanding that things don’t happen overnight, and managing your time wisely. Juan shared other insights he gained about transitioning from college and part-time jobs to adulthood and a steady career.
I think some of the best wisdom I got while I was in the program was from the guest speaker series: go into your future with realistic expectations and the understanding that it’s about the long game.” – Juan Mejia ’14
“Since you go into TFAS and you’re still in school, they really emphasize starting your career off on the right foot, having the right attitude about things, and understanding that your first job is not going to be your permanent job,” he said. “I think some of the best wisdom I got while I was in the program was from the guest speaker series: go into your future with realistic expectations and the understanding that it’s about the long game.”
The biggest takeaway for Ali was the realization that there’s more than one way to accomplish your goals. TFAS helped her realize that she could work and take law school classes at the same time, which she didn’t know was an option before. This boosted her confidence and taught her what she was capable of, along with teaching her practical and organizational skills. The work experience also gave her a leg up after she finished her education.
When discussing what they learned about professional networking from TFAS, the couple finished each other’s sentences.
“TFAS really taught us the importance of networking,” they said. “Not being snooty about it or networking for nefarious reasons, but actually forming genuine relationships and being aware that every relationship you make in D.C. is a relationship you need to maintain. It’s a very unique culture in that sense, and TFAS gives you a chance to really understand that.”
A Lifelong Connection
As their semester in D.C. came to a close, Juan and Ali knew they didn’t want their friendship to end. Ali invited Juan to her sorority’s formal in February, thinking that Juan would make the perfect date. Juan thought she was just being nice, but the two stayed in touch. Juan drove from Houston to Memphis for the event, and they began dating shortly after.
Four years later, Juan was confident Ali was the woman he wanted to spend his life with. In November 2019, he began planning his proposal for Ali’s birthday the following April. He joked that he “planned and executed it to perfection.”
Juan bought the ring two months in advance, secretly flew to Ali’s hometown to ask for her family’s blessing, and planned the perfect birthday surprise. He even coordinated with Ali’s friends to take pictures of them when he proposed at the National Mall, and he ensured that Ali’s family could fly to D.C. to celebrate with them the following weekend. Juan and Ali both beamed with joy while recounting the proposal story.
They celebrated their wedding on April 10, 2021. Both believe they are lucky to have found each other and know TFAS played a vital role in that. They have the same interests and goals, and their dreams merged as they began building a life together.
While their love story is special, it isn’t the only one. There are nearly 100 more alumni couples who have met through TFAS programs and embarked on new adventures as one. When asked why they think so many alumni form such close relationships, Juan and Ali had clear ideas about what draws them together.
“When you get a lot of like-minded, ambitious people together in one program, you’re going to find people whose lives cross,” Ali explained. “Juan and I came to D.C. with our own goals and dreams, but we were able to easily combine our passions and create a life together without feeling like we were giving anything up. We just made each other stronger. When Juan succeeds, I succeed, and vice versa.”
Juan and I came to D.C. with our own goals and dreams, but we were able to easily combine our passions and create a life together without feeling like we were giving anything up.” – Ali Mejia ’14
The Mejias support TFAS programs and encourage other students to apply. Drawing on his experience in the classroom, Juan describes the outcome of TFAS programs in economic terms: one summer or semester with TFAS pays huge dividends in the long run. Ali agreed and highlighted the unique aspects of TFAS that make it stand out from other university and study abroad experiences.
“I gained experiences that set me apart professionally,” Ali said. “I would encourage students not to feel discouraged by not going abroad. TFAS was the perfect fit for me and advanced my career much more than a study abroad program would have. You learn so much and get to see a glimpse of professional life as a student, which is really unique.”