A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

2010 Celebration of Distinction

By Mason Spirit contributor on April 1, 2010

Each spring, the George Mason University Alumni Association honors outstanding alumni, students, and faculty members for their achievements and contributions to the university and the community. The 2010 banquet took place on Wednesday, April 14.

Debbie Hersman, Alumna of the Year

Debbie Hersman

Mason alumna Debbie Hersman, MS Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’99, has spent her career in public service. After graduating from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies, she went to work on Capitol Hill for Rep. Bob Wise of West Virginia, serving as both his staff director and senior legislative aide.

When she was ready to pursue a master’s degree, she shopped around. Many of her Hill colleagues were working on law degrees, but Hersman wanted to do something different.

“I didn’t want it to be an adversarial degree,” she says. “I wanted something where I could solve problems.”

She found what she was looking for at Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and she says she uses what she learned at Mason every day.

As the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Hersman oversees a 400-person independent agency whose mission is to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable causes, and issue recommendations to prevent further accidents.

Appointed to the position by President Barack Obama, Hersman was sworn in on July 28, 2009, as the board’s 12th chairman. A board member since 2004, Hersman has represented the NTSB at the scene of 17 transportation accidents during her tenure.

“We all have challenges in our lives. Whether it is interpersonal or on the job, you have to listen to people. That’s probably the biggest lesson I took away,” she says of her graduate work. “And it is most important when you are trying to figure out how to incorporate everyone’s needs into a solution, something that comes into play in my current role at the NTSB.”

The NTSB “is busiest and in demand when tragedies happen, but I don’t know that everyone fully appreciates how much safer our transportation system is today,” she says.

Since the NTSB was created 40 years ago, the agency has issued more than 13,000 recommendations, 80 percent of which have been adopted by the transportation community.

“It is through these recommendations that we are able to make transportation safer,” she says.

“Public service is incredibly rewarding,” she says. “I feel very humbled to have the opportunity to be in this position and to work with such a talented and committed group of individuals. The past five years at the board have been a privilege.”

—Colleen Kearney Rich, MFA ’95

John Niehoff, Alumni Service Award

John Niehoff, BS Accounting ’84, has a penchant for business and passion for basketball. He also has a special talent for giving back to the alma mater he holds responsible for his success. Thus, he recently was named the 2010 Alumni Service Award Winner.

John Niehoff

Niehoff, who played basketball at Mason from 1980 to 1984, received a full scholarship after his first semester. Currently a partner at accounting and consulting firm Baker Tilly (formerly Beers + Cutler), he is grateful for the education he received at Mason—in the classroom and on the court. “I benefited greatly when I went to Mason,” he says. “The combination of my academic education and what I learned from sports helped me a great deal professionally.”

Such gratitude was what led Niehoff to forge a strong relationship between his employer of more than 20 years and the School of Management (SOM). By serving as recruiting coordinator for Mason, Niehoff over the years has helped roughly 75 SOM students obtain either an internship or employment with his company. He also was a contributing partner when James Beers offered a $125,000 scholarship endowment that was matched by the firm’s partners, bringing Mason the largest scholarship endowment in its history totaling $250,000.

Niehoff also has served on the Accounting Advisory Council, Accounting Patrons, and most recently the SOM Dean’s Advisory Board.

With regard to his current athletic activities, the former point guard was honored in 2008 as a George Mason University Basketball Legend. He is a Patriot Club member and a season ticket holder. It seems his love for both basketball and Mason are infectious—his oldest son, Taylor, is a sophomore at the university. When asked if his son was pressured to attend Mason, Niehoff responds, “He went of his own volition, but I suspect he was brainwashed by the fun of the Final Four experience!”

—Devon Madison

Todd Kashdan, Faculty Member of the Year

Todd Kasdan

The pursuit of happiness—it’s one of the tenets on which this country was founded. So it’s somewhat surprising that the scientific study of happiness is a somewhat new field.

Todd Kashdan, associate professor of psychology and this year’s Celebration of Distinction’s Faculty Member of the Year, is at the forefront of this relatively young discipline known as “positive psychology.”

Edward Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and one of the first to seriously study the science of happiness, says Kashdan is “the entire package as a scholar” and “one of the outstanding young research psychologists in the country.”

Despite earning his PhD in 2004, Kashdan has already published 77 articles, written 10 book chapters, and given more than 100 presentations.

“Dr. Kashdan is the rare scientist who breathes life into research,” says William Breen, one of Kashdan’s doctoral students. “He has a knack for conveying complex ideas in ways that promote understanding and generate enthusiasm.” Therein lies Kashdan’s success with the popular media. His work has been featured prominently in the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as on NPR and PBS. He also writes a blog for Psychology Today.

Last year, his book, Curious? Discovering the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, was published. He also cowrote Designing the Future of Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward that same year.

Along with publishing, a large part of Kashdan’s success lies in his teaching.

“Dr. Kashdan is passionate about seeing his students succeed,” says Alex Afram, another psychology doctoral student. “In everything he pursues, be it teaching, conducting research, or mentoring students, he gives himself completely.”

—Leah Kerkman Fogarty

Devraj Dasgupta, Senior of the Year

Devraj Dasgupta (center) with Alumni Association president Ted Arnn (left) and Mason president Alan Merten

Devraj Dasgupta, a senior electrical engineering major and student body president, definitely can be described as a jack of all trades. But what’s even more impressive, he seems to be a master of them all.

How else can you describe a student who maintains a 3.88 grade point average, has trained for hours a day as part of Mason’s track team, oversees 20 student leaders in his role as president of the Student Government Association, and has completed multiple internships?

“As a Greek, scholar, athlete, engineer, and leader, Devraj is a standard of excellence to the members of the Mason community,” says Chris Prentice, BS Electrical Engineering ’93 and president of the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering Alumni Chapter.

Dasgupta, who graduated from the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, is also a theater minor, which has come in handy for his many public speaking engagements, including an H1N1 Town Hall Meeting he hosted in fall 2009 with the secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education

As a walk-on athlete on Mason’s track team, Dasgupta proved that much can be accomplished with hard work and perseverance. He made the NCAA Division I team after weeks of training despite the elite level of competition——and all of this in addition to being a part of Mason’s University Scholars program. He has since stepped down from the team in order to focus on his duties as student body president.

“Devraj has taken advantage of all that Mason has to offer and more,” says E. Bernard White, associate dean of the Volgenau School. “Most important, he is a well-respected engineering professional and is the first student body president from the Volgenau School.

“We are so proud of Devraj and his accomplishments.”

—Leah Kerkman Fogarty

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