On Wednesday, April 17, the George Mason University Alumni Association recognized its most prestigious alumni, as well as Senior of the Year and Faculty Member of the Year, at an elegant dinner in the Mason Inn Conference Center and Hotel.
For a look at the biographies of those honored that night, please take a look at the Celebration of Distinction 2013 Program  available online. The top four award winners are profiled below.
Patricia Roberts, Alumna of the Year
By Cathy Cruise, MFA ’93
Besides providing what Patricia Roberts, BS Business Administration ’77, says was “a wonderful education,” George Mason University also gave Roberts an introduction to a professor who had a profound impact on her life.
Roberts, this year’s Alumna of the Year Award recipient, received her degree in 1977, but soon after graduating, she found she wasn’t receiving the types of job offers that were being presented to her male classmates.
“Many employers were offering only what were considered to be traditional occupations for women at the time, such as bank teller and secretarial roles,” says School of Management dean Jorge Haddock, who nominated Roberts for the award.
Roberts took her concerns to her finance professor, Robert Johnston, who was able to set up an interview for her at General Reinsurance Corporation, a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary. Roberts was promptly hired by the corporation and dedicated the next 35 years of her professional energies to her work there. She says she “loved every day,” working her way up through a variety of leadership roles. In 2001, she was named president and chief executive officer of two companies within the Berkshire Hathaway organization: General Star and Genesis.
Now, in a grand gesture of gratitude to her former instructor, Roberts and her husband have established a professorship in honor of Johnston, who will retire next year. They kicked off the endowment last November with a gift of $500,000—the largest contribution ever received in the history of the School of Management. The gift was a “way for us to say thank you,” Roberts says, “and pave the way for the next professor to follow in his footsteps.”
Roberts’ career and her generous spirit are “setting a magnificent example for the way in which alumni honor our faculty,” Haddock says. “She exemplifies the professional success and perseverance we see throughout the Mason community.”
Roberts also reconnected with Mason two years ago by joining the School of Management Dean’s Council in an effort to help the university expand relationships with executives and to create training and educational opportunities.
Having retired last year from General Star, Roberts now divides her time between family, sailing, working with the Dean’s Council, and volunteering at Inspirica, an organization providing support for the homeless in Connecticut. This fall, she plans to begin traveling with her father and with her husband, who is also a Mason graduate. The three will begin with a trip to St. John, and then Roberts and her husband will embark on a cruise down the Danube River.
Helen Ackerman, Alumni Service Award
By Buzz McClain, BA ’77
Not only is this year’s Alumni Service Award honoree still a student, she’s also a former vice president of a university division. Helen Ackerman, MA English ’86, began her exceptional career at George Mason University in 1976 in what was then the Public Relations Office, at the time housed in the Finley Building; she retired in 2005 as vice president of University Relations, with an office in the “new” Mason Hall.
She began taking classes in 1980 because, she says, “we kept having these absolutely brilliant people coming to campus, particularly in the English Department, and I wanted to take advantage of the kind of faculty we were attracting.” With an English degree from the University of Western Australia in her native Perth, Ackerman began work on a master’s degree in her spare time.
“One class each semester, and before I knew it I had a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing. And I was so disappointed when I finished,” she says. “I found it a revelation going back to college as an older student. You have so much more to bring to the class, and you get so much more out of the class. I fell passionately in love with learning, and I’ve taken a class at George Mason just about every year.”
Which includes post retirement. Last fall, she studied neuroscience; before that it was astronomy. “It was all just so fascinating,” she says of the divergent subjects.
Her love of learning is infectious, and she happily shares it with others in service to the university. Ackerman is part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which provides a variety of continuing education classes to retirees, but her real passion is for the Early Identification Program  (EIP), “which is near and dear to my heart and something I’ve been involved in for 15 years,” she says.
The EIP, founded in 1987, helps regional middle and high school students—who will be the first in their families to attend college—navigate the unpredictable pathways to higher education. Not only does Ackerman, with her husband William, provide financial support to the program, she’s assisted with preparing the EIP newsletter, helped to recruit participants, and organized the EIP Summer Academy Career Day and Arts Day. She coaches students in composing their college essays in which they share their personal stories of their journeys to higher education.
She’s also a member of the EIP Scholarship Committee, which makes vital financial decisions about the program’s participants, many of whom are from at-risk families.
“They still need a lot of support and help once they’re on campus,” she says. “I was asked by [former EIP director] Hortensia Cadenas if I would be willing to mentor a student, and that’s how I got involved.”
And 15 years on, she’s still helping students make the most of their college careers.
“It is so amazing to watch the kids blossom once they get to Mason,” she says.
Marion Deshmukh, Faculty Member of the Year
By Cathy Cruise, MFA ’93
It’s all about the stories for Mason professor Marion Deshmukh . From early childhood, tales of the past were relayed to her by her “history buff” parents, which instilled in her a deep interest in earlier times and a desire to pass that interest along to others.
“My parents read a lot and always told stories,” Deshmukh says. “So I think it was a natural gravitation for me to move toward history. I also had great teachers, and that was the key.”
Obviously another inspiration she’s passed along to great success. As this year’s Faculty Member of the Year Award winner, Deshmukh largely credits her ability to motivate students to tell the stories they themselves can tell.
“Everybody’s family comes from somewhere, whether it’s one generation or 12 generations back,” she says. “Why am I here, where did I come from? We start with the personal and sort of move concentrically out.”
It’s just one small example of her interest in and connection to her students, leading Brian Platt, chair of Mason’s Department of History and Art History, to state that Deshmukh “relishes getting to know her students and seeing them grow intellectually. When speaking with alumni about their experience at
Mason, they mention Deshmukh more than any other faculty member.”
Deshmukh earned a BA in history from the University of California, Los Angeles, and MA and master of philosophy degrees in history with a minor in art history from Columbia University. She began teaching at Mason in 1969, while completing her PhD at Columbia.
She says she’s “grown up with this university” and has witnessed massive changes, many of which she’s played a large part. She chaired the Department of History and Art History for 11 years, successfully steering it from a small, teaching-oriented department to a large, research-oriented one.
She also served as the faculty and staff chair for the Merten Campaign in spring 2012, successfully raising more than $5 million in support of the Merten Scholars Endowment. She established a fully funded graduate fellowship in the History and Art History Department. And, most notably, she led a 20-year effort to successfully bring a Phi Beta Kappa chapter to Mason, for which the first induction of students takes place this month.
In 2010, Deshmukh was awarded Mason’s first Robert T. Hawkes Professorship, an honor emphasizing extraordinary commitment to teaching. “It shows the department’s endorsement of Marion as a premier teacher,” says Jack Censer, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “She is a university powerhouse and a treasure.”
With so many long hours devoted to work, Deshmukh uses her spare time for more work, of course. She has published papers on 19th- and 20th-century German painters, museums, and art organizations. She has curated exhibitions and is currently organizing an art exhibit in 2014 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. The exhibit, German and American Artists Visualize World War I, will be displayed at the Pepco-Edison Gallery in Washington, D.C., and at the Museum of Print History in Houston, Texas.
She’s also working with the Center for Global Education to conduct a student study tour next summer of the chronology of World War I, starting in Sarajevo, continuing to the battlefields of the Western Front, and ending in Paris, where the 1919 peace treaties were signed.
Deshmukh says she was “quite excited and pleased” at winning this award, one in a long list of honors that include a Fulbright grant, a J. P. Getty research grant, and the David King Award for University Teaching Excellence. But accolades aside, she’s quick to bring the emphasis on the rewards of her career back to her students. One of the best parts, she says, is hearing from those she taught years before. She tells of an alumnus who recently contacted her after he spotted some history books in a bookstore and was reminded of her class decades ago.
“To hear back from students and learn what they’re doing, and learning that they still remember one’s classes after all those years,” she says, “that’s the fun part. Those kinds of moments are why you teach.”
Quoc “Ricky” Tran, Senior of the Year
By Buzz McClain, BA ’77
It’s not unusual to apply to multiple schools for postgraduate studies, but Quoc “Ricky” Tran, this year’s George Mason University Senior of the Year, may have set a record.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t get into pharmacy school, so I applied to 19,” he says with a laugh. “And the first school I was accepted to was my dream school, Shenandoah.” That would be the Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. Tran would eventually be invited to interview at all 18 other schools, which isn’t surprising given his accomplishments at George Mason over the past four years. But for Tran, overachieving isn’t anything new.
You would never know it from a conversation with the self-effacing Tran, who says he always underestimates himself, but he’s won several scholarships and awards, including the Undergraduate Research Student of the Year Award and Provost Achievement Award. Meanwhile he’s worked as a biomedical intern/research assistant/business project manager at Inova Fairfax Hospital and presented poster and oral presentations depicting his clinical research. He also worked as application coordinator for the Student Funding Board in the Office of Student Involvement , served as an information desk assistant for University Information , helped as a client service representative for the Office of Admissions , and is president of the Mason chapter of the Golden Key International Honour Society , which recognizes the top 15 percent of students in their classes. He currently serves as a Council of Student Members representative for Golden Key International.
But he’s most happy to talk about his involvement with the Pre-Pharmacy Society, which he helped revitalize from an inactive club into what is now the Pre-Pharmacy Honor Society . As president, he developed mentorship programs with the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy as well as Shenandoah, programs he says “have been extremely helpful, not only for me but other people who are interested in careers in pharmacy.” In fact, Tran has had the same mentor at Shenandoah for three years, giving him a significant head start in mapping out his postgraduate studies.
Tran also counts as a highlight his research with Mason professor Ancha Baranova  at Inova Fairfax Hospital on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease patients. So he’s a biology major, right? Not quite: it’s economics.
When he first came to Mason, Trans says, “I was a biology and chemistry major, because I knew I wanted to go to pharmacy school. But I also wanted to think outside the box and study things not specifically tied to pharmacy. That’s when I looked into economics and saw Mason had such a great program with two Nobel Prize winners. That’s when I really wanted to do economics.”
Tran, who has been in the United States four-and-a-half years as an international student, is often asked by other students how he manages to do everything he does on campus, as well as volunteer at a pharmacy in Falls Church, Virginia.
“To be honest, my schedule may be full, but when I came from Vietnam, I found having so many choices and opportunities very different. In Vietnam, we don’t have a chance to work in a professional setting or be involved with so many different things. When I get involved with something I just keep going and I push myself over the limits. I want to experience everything that I can.”
And what does he do for fun?
“All these extracurricular activities I think are fun, and I really enjoy doing them,” he says. “I love what I’m doing and I enjoy every minute of it.”