Alumni Spotlight: JJ Velez ’96
This spring, we caught up with IMS Board Member JJ Velez ‘96 to learn how the school proved so pivotal in inspiring his own life through service.
How did you make your way to IMS?
Growing up in New York City back in the 1980’s, I was a participant in a program called Ice Hockey in Harlem, which is a non-profit organization based in that community which has been around for over thirty-five years now. It exists to provide inner-city kids the opportunity to play a sport with relatively high barriers to entry—such as the cost of ice time, equipment, and instruction—by removing those barriers. And while the game of hockey is the “carrot,” education has always been a central component of the program. IHIH was founded a few years before I attended IMS, and by the time that I signed up they had already developed the capacity to help young men and women access that prep and private school pathway, and so one of the core missions became to try to change the life trajectory, one kid at a time.
Because of my on-ice and off-ice abilities, the organizers felt like I had earned the opportunity to look at boarding schools. A few kids before me had gone off to Trinity Pawling, Salisbury, and Northfield Mount Hermon. But I believe I was one of the first to be considered for a Junior Boarding School, and that was an avenue that IHIH really wanted to explore.
You toured a few schools. What made IMS stand out?
The atmosphere, the student-to-teacher ratio, its proximity to New York City. Also, some of the faculty had some inner-city experience; I believe Scott Wiggins, the Dean of Students, was a former Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia. For an inner-city kid getting dropped in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut, that little bit of relatability and common ground went a long way. (It also helped that Scott was my hockey coach.) What’s more, the IMS administration at the time was also very reassuring and committed to the idea of establishing the very pathways that IHIH was trying to open up.
You went on from IMS to high school at South Kent and undergrad at Wheaton College. Why is your middle school the place where you remain so engaged and committed to giving back?
You guys were the first, the catalyst for everything that came after. Without IMS, there’s a very real chance that those other dominoes wouldn’t have fallen as they did. It’s also the friendships—so many that remain strong and vital to this day. My relationships with faculty and the positive impact they had on me are indelible. There’s also the diversity. I’ve been involved with a lot of prep schools as a student, educator, and administrator, and in my current role as Board Chair at IHIH. Most places, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work isn’t as organic as it is at IMS, and that’s due, in large part, to the relative diversity of the student body.
I think there’s magic on the campus and magic in the hills. I have the fondest memories of the old traditions, and I’ll never get away from Maroon and Gray, but to see the way the school’s physical plant is evolving into a world-class facility is also affirming.
I choose to be a part of the board and be an advocate for the school because I’ve witnessed first hand how transformational the IMS experience is, and that’s the main reason I remain active. Just having seen the impact of what happens here on campus and how profound it is for students—that’s why I believe other alums and families do and should stay involved, as well.
Another part of the reason why I do what I do, whether it’s through giving or devoting my time, is so kids who come from a similar background, a similar situation, can have the same opportunity to hopefully change their trajectory in life. It’s that whole idea of the ripple effect: if you drop a pebble in the water, those ripples can radiate out, altering futures and influencing outcomes. I believe it’s true. And if not me, then who?
JJ Velez as a student at IMS