The actress, who has played the fan-favorite forensic scientist since the show began in 2003, created two different scholarships — one at Valdosta State University and one at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City — for women who want to follow in Abby’s fictional footsteps and pursue a real-life career in math and science.
“Abby is not just a TV character for people,” Perrette, 49, tells PEOPLE. “These young girls have modeled their entire lives off of her. It’s like Abby has raised a couple of generations of young girls and has inspired this international phenomenon of young women going into math and science and STEM programs because she made it accessible, cool, attainable and fun.”
She adds: “It’s a scholarship that is going to make Abby live forever in the real lives of these young people that find out about this.”
Perrette’s connection to the two schools where the scholarship is being offered is personal, as she studied criminal science, sociology and psychology at Valdosta State and was planning on finishing her Master’s degree at the John Jay School of Criminal Science until she says she “accidentally” became an actor.
“It makes me so happy and it warms my heart so much that this is literally going to be an immortal legacy for these real-life people to be afforded this education and to pursue criminal science and forensics, all because of Abby,” she says.
Perrette says she’s been “completely obsessed” with crime stories since she was a kid.
“I lived in Georgia at the time of the Atlanta child murders, and I was around the same age of those kids, and I lived right off the Chattahoochee River,” she says of the series of murders that were committed in the city from 1979 to 1981. “I was very young then, but I was obsessed with that case. Then I got really obsessed with Jonestown. I was way too young to be obsessed with these things, but I would every cut out every article — I really don’t like bad guys.”
Perrette says that in her own life, she works very closely with the Los Angeles Police Department and has worked on several cases with John Walsh from America’s Most Wanted.
“[John and I] have so much in common because we are both obsessed with catching bad guys,” she says. “That’s how it all started. I really don’t like criminals. Life on planet Earth is hard enough.’”
Perrette, who says she has been stalked for the last 14 years and opened up about it during a 48 Hours exposé in 2017, says she’s also continuing to push for updated stalking laws.
“I have a permanent restraining order, but those can only do so much,” she says. “The biggest problem we have right now is that the stalking laws have not been updated since the Internet. That is just ridiculous because a lot of stalkers use the Internet, that’s their main tool. There’s a lot we have to get changed but especially Internet stalking laws.”
But in the immediate future, Perrette says she’s just preparing herself emotionally to get through Abby’s final goodbye Tuesday.
“I just need to be with my dogs, I just need to be alone” she says. “I’ve had a long time to come to terms with what’s going on, and I’ve really tried to navigate this as faithfully as I can for my fans. That’s been my main priority, to really try to be as respectful as I can to them and give them plenty of warning. It’s a big deal for them. I’m just going to be sitting here doing what I do best and drinking beers with my dogs on the couch, but the dogs don’t drink because they’re not 21.”
Perrette announced her departure from NCIS with a statement on Twitter last October, and though she doesn’t know how watching the episode will make her feel, she says one thing is certain: She’s “so proud” of the work she did on it.
“I knew it was going to be heavy, I knew it was going to be tough and I just decided, ‘I’m going to give this everything I’ve got,’ and I did,” she says. “I was emotionally exhausted at the end of every single day. It was so heavy, but it’s probably the best work I’ve ever done. I’ve heard from producers and post-production who have seen the episode and they said it’s probably the best NCIS episode we’ve ever done.”
Now, Perrette says she keeps a reminder of her character in her home: Abby’s parasol, which she is known for never going outside without. Plus. she’s looking forward to having some downtime.
“No matter what your job was, if you do something for 16 years and then all of a sudden you don’t, that’s a big change,” she says. “The first day after I completed shooting, I was emotionally exhausted and was like, ‘I need to chill hardcore.’ I came home, and the pipes burst in my house, and I had plumbers that I didn’t know inside my house all day long. Then my cable went out! I’m like, ‘This is crazy!’”
Perrette’s final NCIS episode airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.