When Jag and Linda Cheema needed a family in their new hometown, New Mexico State University answered the call. When NMSU students needed a home away from home, the Cheemas dialed in. Now, the Jag and Linda Cheema Endowed Scholarship will create a way for student athletes to be their best, not only on the playing fields and courts but in the classroom as well.
“When we first moved here, we didn’t know anyone,” Linda Cheema said about their arrival in Las Cruces in 1988. “Jag said to me – the very weekend we were moving in – everyone around here already has their friends. They don’t need us – we need them.”
Jag Cheema, a tennis player, picked up the phone and called NMSU to ask for a tennis partner.
“We met the coach and the rest was history,” Linda said. “We became more and more involved in the tennis program, and then women’s athletic programs. We realized that the women’s athletic programs don’t always get the same attention as the men’s programs.”
The stories of NMSU students affected Jag and Linda in different ways. Jag, originally from India, felt a desire to help foreign students, the way he was helped as a student. Jag’s family also had innate expectations of education and giving back. It was an example set by his grandfather, an Indian freedom fighter, who showed that it was their duty to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves.
Linda, a first-generation college student, wanted to pay tribute to a great uncle who helped her through school, even though he only had a third-grade education.
“He developed tools, got them patented and made money, but he could hardly read a paper,” Linda said. “He knew the value of an education and he helped me. Giving back is my way of honoring him.”
For years, the Cheemas’ gifts were in the form of something intangible, but invaluable – being the community that NMSU students needed. Jag remembers the first time they got involved with the women’s basketball team, spending time with the players after the game.
“They were so nice, so thankful that we came out for them,” Jag said and both he and Linda started to laugh before he continued: “We called up the coach later and said we want to have them over for dinner and he asked, ‘Which student?’ and I said, ‘The whole team!’”
“When we couldn’t afford to create scholarships, that’s what we were doing instead – we were their biggest cheerleaders and doted on them,” Linda said about how they welcomed the students into their home.
“And they need it,” Jag agreed.
“I tell the parents who don’t live in the area, I can get to your kid a lot quicker than you can,” said Jag who remembered helping a student who needed knee surgery.
“Her parents couldn’t come, so I said we’ll sit with her,” Jag said. “I called the father after surgery and it barely rang once. He was waiting for my call.”
“A few years later,” he continued, “we went to her wedding in Salt Lake City. I asked her dad where can we stay and he said, ‘No, you’ve done more for my family than any of my own kinfolk has,’ and we ended up staying with them at their home.”
On a recent trip to Croatia, they met up with a former Aggie basketball player – one of the many former students whom they consider a daughter.
“Her husband said that when we met her that it couldn’t have come at a better time in her life,” Jag said. “Now, their 4-year-old daughter’s name is Linda. I don’t think there is a bigger honor than that.”
“We have two sons and four grandsons, but we have hundreds of daughters,” Linda said. Their gift of time and devotion extended not only to their new daughters, but to the students’ families as well.
When Jag and Linda sat down to consider giving a financial gift to NMSU, they decided to go with their core values.
“We are concerned about the first-generation students – the ones with financial need. We want to increase the quality of lifestyle for the whole community,” Jag said. “Plus, most people who receive a scholarship are very receptive to help others, when they are able. It starts a process of change, and that’s our goal.”
The Cheemas took advantage of NMSU’s Giving Tuesday initiative focused on raising dollars and participation. Some donations were even matched dollar-for-dollar, thanks to revenue from the NMSU license plate program and an estate gift from a generous donor.
“We’re not going to solve all the problems,” Jag said. “But how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Linda continued, “For us, it’s helping one student at a time. You help your family, and for us, New Mexico State University has become part of our family.”