A walk through Mason’s Johnson Center gives you an indication that the university is pretty diverse—colorful flags, flyers, and signs tout a variety of student organizations representing any number of constituencies with affinities to different cultural groups, religions, and more. The students, faculty, and staff collected in the food court reflect this same diversity. Conversations are taking place in a multitude of languages, and people across a spectrum of ages and backgrounds are laughing and sharing the latest from the saga of daily college life.
The scene isn’t surprising, especially in Northern Virginia, which is noted for its diverse local population. Mason is recognized for the breadth of its student body, which comprises people from nearly 130 countries, with nearly half of Mason students being people of color.
But there is something more to the make up of the Mason community than its geographic location in a diverse metropolitan area. What sets the university apart is not only its ability to attract students from a variety of backgrounds, but to graduate those same students at higher levels than many other institutions.
Diverse: Issues in Higher Education last spring recognized Mason among the top 100 institutions in the country awarding degrees to minority students. Mason placed 29th for Asian students, 75th for Hispanic students, and 54th for all minority groups. In addition, the university was recognized in two studies by the Education Trust for having little to no disparity in graduation rates between African American and Hispanic students compared with Caucasian students.
Corey Jackson, assistant to the president and director of Mason’s Office of Equity and Diversity Services, says Mason is still trying to identify the exact factors that make such outcomes possible.
“The whole key is to put somebody in a position where they can be successful,” says Jackson. “I think Mason does a really good job of identifying good people and giving them resources that will help them be successful.”
Cross-departmental collaboration for the benefit of students is something that Jackson sees Mason doing better than many other institutions. Mason’s youth and openness to inclusion have been keys to the university’s success, Jackson noted.
Programs such as the Early Identification Program (EIP) and the Summer Transition Empowerment Program (STEP) in the Office of University Life are prime examples of this proactive approach, says Jackson.
Early Identification Starts Path to Collegiate Success
Established in 1987, EIP provides educational resources for middle and high school students who could be the first in their families to attend college. Each year, a new class of rising eighth graders from seven school districts in Northern Virginia is accepted into the program, while upperclassmen dedicate three weeks of their summer on Mason’s Fairfax and Prince William Campuses for the program’s Summer Academy.
Students work on building skills in math, English, technology, and science, as well as taking workshops on college preparation, leadership, career development, and life skills. During the academic year, EIP students participate in weekend workshops and seminars. Students stay in the program until they graduate from high school.
Over its 25-year history, the program has become a fixture in the Northern Virginia community, according to EIP’s executive director Lewis Forrest, BA English’96, MEd Counseling and Development ’05. “Retention is important to everybody—moving students through graduation and into college,” Forrest says.
With a long-standing reputation comes a competitive admissions process. Forrest notes that the program received 550 nominations in 2012 with spots for around 130.
Part of the appeal—and success—of the program has been its efforts to not only work with students to prepare for college, but to incorporate families as well, something that is mandatory for the program. EIP parents are required to participate in the Strengthening the Family workshop as their children enter the program. Many of the parents go beyond the workshop and volunteer at events.
“I always tell families that this is an extended family for them,” says Forrest.
For many college-bound EIP students, Mason is a natural choice because of the years they have already spent on Mason’s campus. The program offers a built-in community and resources for those students, with EIP offering scholarships to select program alumni.
Past participants regularly gather in the office’s computer lab or lounge, whether to study or attend student organization meetings. Several EIP alumni also work in the office and serve as mentors and teachers to current participants. Leadership is an emphasis of the program.
“When you look at the website or in university publications, a lot of times you’ll see faces of EIP students representing Mason,” says Forrest. “I think that’s because they know that their job when they get here is to be involved.”
Making the Next STEP
A select group of Mason students makes the first stop in their college career at STEP, a five-week intensive college boot camp offered as a retention initiative through Mason’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education.
Before its current iteration began in 2005, STEP was a federally funded program administered by the Commonwealth of Virginia that served African American students from Virginia. According to STEP’s director Joya Crear, associate dean of University Life, when funding for the program ended, Mason decided to carry on and open the program to first-generation in-state students.
During STEP, a cohort of 25 to 30 students lives on campus during Mason’s last summer session and takes their first two academic courses. In addition to getting a head start on their course work, STEP participants attend leadership and college life seminars, learning everything from study skills to unwritten campus rules of success to how to budget their money.
“It’s a way for them to get a step ahead of their peers who come at the end of August for the fall semester,” says Crear.
Participants have faculty and student mentors and complete an annual service project together. The group also takes field trips into Washington, D.C., which sometimes combine with class projects for their courses.
With so much to offer—admitted STEP participants have all their expenses, including living on campus, covered for the five weeks they are here—the program has become increasingly popular and competitive. When possible, the program redirects qualified applicants to other campus programs that might be a good fit for them, including the Honors College.
“We definitely have more applicants and interest than we have spots,” says Crear.
After the summer component, students transition to the STEP Scholars program for additional support as they obtain their degree. Crear says that the office is expanding its staff to include someone who will develop targeted programming to ensure a successful sophomore-to-senior experience. “That person will develop programming around what happens after freshman year.”
Having recently passed the mark of graduating its first class, STEP started a new tradition for program alumni: their first graduation celebration this past May. It is something Crear hopes to see continue.
To learn more about EIP and STEP, visit the programs’ websites or contact Philip Hunt (firstname.lastname@example.org), director of development for access initiatives, for more information on supporting the programs.
What Does Diversity Mean, Anyway?
What exactly does the term “diversity” represent? Jackson says the term is often up for debate.
“I’m not naïve—diversity means different things to different people,” he says. “It’s also a bad word to a lot of people. I think that we have to provide people some sort of understanding of why diversity matters, how it’s important, and how it impacts their lives.”
It’s an effort that Jackson has been leading at the university since his arrival in 2009. Part of that has been drafting a diversity statement for Mason in collaboration with the Faculty and Staff Senates and undergraduate and graduate student governments. Jackson has also worked to educate the university community on how diversity benefits Mason.
Other initiatives have included revamping recruitment efforts to attract diverse faculty and staff and ensuring accessibility for those with disabilities. Funding remains the biggest challenge to accomplishing all these goals, Jackson says.
“The university hasn’t really had to dedicate a lot of funds for diversity in the past because of its natural growth,” he says. “We’re going to have to find ways to fund initiatives that take a proactive approach going forward.”
See the university’s diversity statement at diversity.gmu.edu/docs/DiversityStatement2010.pdf.