Students come to Washington University for myriad reasons, including a specific major, co-curricular opportunity and the idyllic campus. However, it may have been a batch of delicious homemade guacamole that tipped the scales in WashU’s favor for Summer McKenna, AB ’21. More likely, it was the chef responsible for the ace appetizer: Varuni Kumara, AB ’96. Since 2013, Varuni has chaired the San Antonio, Texas, chapter of the Alumni and Parents Admission Program (APAP), a group of WashU undergraduate alumni and current parents who volunteer their time to support the university’s undergraduate admissions efforts.
In April 2017, she and husband Minesh Jariwala hosted a gathering for newly admitted students and families from the greater San Antonio area. Taking inspiration from the city’s annual spring Fiesta, Varuni greeted guests with a festive spread of nonalcoholic mango margaritas, tacos, chips and guacamole, and spicy Mexican candy. The Admitted Student Reception is one of APAP’s signature events, and the afternoon was designed to offer a friendly, casual forum for prospective students and their families to mingle with alumni and current parents, ask questions and learn more about the WashU experience.
Among the guests were Summer, her parents, and her younger brother, Tully McKenna, Class of 2024. While still undecided, Summer was drawn to WashU because it would allow her to pursue an interdisciplinary philosophy-neuroscience-psychology (PNP) major while continuing to run varsity track and field. During the reception, she felt no pressure to choose WashU or to disclose her competing offers. Indeed, Summer had been blown away by the enthusiasm and care that had accompanied her WashU acceptance, and Varuni’s warmth was further proof of the university’s welcoming energy.
“She was so excited to get to know each of us and to hear our stories,” Summer recalls. “I really felt like she saw me as an individual and was interested in not only my passions but also my concerns.”
One of those concerns was finances. Even with a scholarship from WashU and an opportunity to earn another by participating in the St. Louis Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC), Summer worried that the cost of tuition would be a stretch for her family. She knew that attending WashU held financial risk but also the potential for even greater personal and intellectual reward. And so, less than two weeks after the reception, Summer emailed Varuni to thank her for her hospitality — “a big factor in my decision,” she wrote — and share that she was now an official member of WashU’s Class of 2021.
Quite simply, Summer thrived at WashU. Because of her elite performance in the first year of ROTC training, she earned a scholarship that helped support her through graduation. And she became so invested in ROTC that she retired from competitive athletics after sophomore year to focus on it and eventually ascended to the Gateway Battalion’s top cadet leadership post, cadet battalion commander. In the summer of 2018, she studied abroad in Morocco through the Department of Defense–sponsored Project Global Officer program and developed an interest in Arabic and the Middle East. Having completed her PNP major requirements in under three years, she added a second, and now primary, concentration in modern Middle Eastern studies. A finalist for both the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, she is now a Fulbright Scholar teaching English to college students in Trabzon, Turkey.
Throughout the years, Summer and her family stayed in contact with Varuni, mostly via text and email but occasionally in person. Shortly after her enrollment, Varuni attended and even delivered brief remarks at Summer’s athletics signing ceremony. When Varuni returned to campus for APAP chair training in the fall of 2017, she reunited with Summer outside her first-year dorm and then again two years later as she moved into a new off-campus apartment. In addition, Summer’s parents are now active members of APAP in San Antonio.
For Summer, her family’s bond with Varuni created an invaluable bridge between home and college, as did their interactions with other San Antonio–area students and families through APAP and alumni programming. “I was able to preserve a little bit of WashU in San Antonio because of this network and also maintain a sense of home in St. Louis with my friends from Texas,” she says.
For Varuni, it has been incredibly rewarding to follow Summer’s rise over the past four years and to know she played a small part in her story. “This is why I volunteer with APAP,” she says. And while she takes pride in Summer’s journey from prospective student to WashU alumna, she is equally proud of leading and growing the San Antonio APAP chapter and serving as an ambassador for her beloved alma mater and hometown.
On a practical level, joining APAP is one of the most flexible means for undergraduate alumni and current parents to engage with the university. Although Varuni assumed leadership of the San Antonio group eight years ago, she has been involved with APAP since 1998. She worked with the Chicago chapter while earning a doctor of podiatric medicine degree and, at times, has decreased her participation to accommodate other commitments. Because there are no participation requirements, APAP is uniquely suited to meet life’s ebbs and flows. That also makes it a golden opportunity for younger alumni to network and maintain ties to the university and for alumni who may feel out of touch to reconnect.
WashU students and alumni of all ages share a certain “essence,” according to Varuni. Like a secret spice blend, it is difficult to identify the individual ingredients but easy to recognize the resulting flavor profile. Open and intelligent, collaborative and curious, inviting and humble — members of the WashU community possess these qualities and many more. “WashU is special because of its people,” Summer says, and people lie at the heart of APAP’s work.
While APAP may be best known for assisting with admissions interviews, volunteer efforts extend to staffing college fairs and organizing both in-person and virtual events like Admitted Student Receptions and Summer Send-Offs. Committed to outreach, APAP calls attention to the vibrant WashU community of today in order to shape tomorrow’s.