Every year, George Mason University takes in about 5,000 new undergraduates. Half are freshmen, and half are transfers. A large part the transfer group comes from Virginia’s community colleges. It is this group of students that most remind me of myself.
My parents didn’t go to college. My father had two years of high school; my mother had four. Yet, it was always clear to me that they assumed I would go to college. I spent my first two years of college at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, so I could live at home. For my junior and senior years, I transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I got through college because there were public universities and, during my junior and senior years, I was able to work part time in the university’s computer center.
When I see Mason students working for the Information Technology Unit on campus, it always brings back memories. Every few years, Joy Hughes, Mason’s vice president of information technology, has me meet with these student assistants and tell my story.
In my yearly foray into welcoming new students to Mason during move in, I have noticed two things that put a smile on my face. One is that the number of times parents say “I’m a Mason alum” has risen dramatically. They always have a story to tell—usually about the last time they were on campus and how much things have changed. The other thing that makes me smile is the siblings. More families are bringing their second or third child to Mason, which is something I don’t remember seeing in the past. We are creating multiple generations of Mason alumni, as well as Mason families.
As the largest public university in Virginia, we are providing the higher education rung for a lot of people. And we are attracting people from farther and farther away. The challenge we have is to get better and better and do more and more.
One half of me says my job as president is to increase the quality of George Mason University and attract more and better applicants. In fact, part of the national rankings is based on how many rejections you send out versus how many students you admit, showing how selective you are.
The other half of me wants the university to remain accessible. In just a few years, we’ve gone from 23,000 students to almost 33,000, and we don’t want to grow any more unless we receive more financial support from the Commonwealth of Virginia. So basically, there will be the same number of “seats on the bus” even though the number of applicants continues to grow. I worry that today’s Alan Mertens might not be able to get into George Mason University.
College opened doors for me. Here at Mason, I hope we always find a way to open doors for others.
Alan G. Merten