First Look: Honors College MasonU Project Introduces Youngsters to Higher Ed

By Sudha Kamath

fourth and fifth graders from McNair Elementary School at the Fairfax Campus

MasonU fifth and sixth grade students got a Chinese language and culture lesson while touring Mason. Photo by Alexis Glenn

It’s called MasonU. And it’s a new organization set up by George Mason University’s Honors College students to give local youngsters who may not have considered higher education a behind-the-scenes look at university life.  MasonU offers tours of the Fairfax Campus during the academic year to underrepresented area youth.

Shannon Toole, a George Mason sophomore currently studying abroad at England’s Oxford University, came up with the idea through a project funded by the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR) investigating “Early Intervention College Access.”

Alexis Patullo, a forensic science sophomore from Bucks County, Pa., recently welcomed a group of fifth and sixth graders from McNair Elementary School in Herndon, Va., to Mason’s Fairfax Campus. The day began with Xu Wang of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences giving a presentation on Chinese culture and language.

MasonU logo“My favorite part about MasonU is hearing the students talk about how excited they are to come to college. Many of these students would never have thought about going to college before working with MasonU,” says Alexis Patullo, MasonU tour guide and treasurer. “Being able to inspire them to continue on to higher education is so rewarding and is why I love being a part of this wonderful organization.”

“We saw a dress from China, photos and even learned how to speak Chinese,” says Nawreen Jahan, a fifth grader who’s not quite sure yet what she wants to be when she grows up. But she loves math and science. “This place is really cool,” says Jahan, whose family is originally from Bangladesh. “It’s pretty big, and there’s lots to do here.”

The students got a chance to catch Mason’s annual International Week parade, with Mason students from all over the world displaying native flags and attire. “McNair is one of the most diverse schools in Fairfax County,” says Amanda Seminario, a counselor who chaperoned the attentive McNair group. “It’s the same here at Mason. We were so excited to get the opportunity to come here. We love getting to expose these children so early to the idea of going to college.”

Desmond Moffitt is an Honors College freshman and MasonU’s co-coordinator of community outreach. He’s carrying on Toole’s research to find and invite schools and organizations to Mason. The history major is originally from Louisville, Ky. and attended high school in Chesapeake, Va. He says it’s important for young people to have options early in their lives. “Something will grab these students’ attention one day. It’s best that MasonU, with its college planning activities and interactive tours, is the one to do so. If I hadn’t attended a program like this in Kentucky when I was in sixth grade, who knows what would’ve grabbed my attention?” says the Gates Millennium Scholarship recipient.

Nakia Ridgeway, another Honors College freshman, is from Lexington, Ky. The conflict and analysis resolution major also gives tours to high school students as a Mason Ambassador, and now she’s a tour guide for MasonU. “I love showing off Mason, and I love kids, so I thought, ‘Why not combine both?’”

Moffitt and Ridgeway led the group on an interactive scavenger hunt around campus with stops at the Lecture Hall and Eastern Shore residence hall. They faced questions from students ranging from “What are some of your student organizations?” to “What do kids do for fun?” to “What do you eat around here?”

“I’ll be the first in my family to go to college,” says Mamadou Kante, whose family is originally from Mali. The sixth grader, who wants to be an engineer, was impressed by the tour. “It’s awesome,” he summed up.

“This is the most excited I’ve ever seen some of these kids. It’s been so amazing for them,” said Jill Guerin, another McNair counselor.

Grace Zamorano, Honors College recruitment and outreach coordinator who mentored the original OSCAR project, says serving as an advisor to MasonU “has been an incredibly rewarding experience.”

The group’s focus on serving underrepresented students before they enter high school meets an important need in society and allows Honors College students to engage with the local community, she says. “Our hope is that even if these visiting students do not end up at Mason, they will strongly consider their college and university options, understanding the importance of higher education.”