Alan Byrd joined George Mason University as its dean of admissions in November 2020. Prior to Mason, Byrd served as the chief enrollment officer at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), where he earned his PhD in educational leadership and policy studies. During his time at UMSL, Byrd set several new milestones for the university in enrollment growth, diversity, and graduation rates, while creating innovative new financial aid programs. Byrd has a BA in communication and an MA in higher education administration from Southeast Missouri State University.
Why did you choose Mason?
I started my job search at probably the worst time imaginable—during the height of the pandemic. I had just finished my PhD, and I was looking for an opportunity where I could continue doing what I love, which is helping transform lives through higher education. Initially, being from the Midwest and living there my entire life, I was looking for new opportunities on the East and West Coasts. I wasn't familiar with Mason other than they ruined my [NCAA basketball] bracket back in 2006. I had won our office pool four years in a row, and Mason completely trashed my bracket and ended my winning streak [laugh].
Once I did my research, I was very impressed with the strength of Mason's academic programs, the faculty, and its location so close to Washington, D.C. However, I was most impressed with the diversity and success rates of the Mason student body. I've spent a great deal of my career closing achievement gaps for underrepresented students, and to see that Mason was so solid and consistent at graduating all students at similar rates regardless of their backgrounds—that blew my mind. These outcomes said a lot about the type of environment that Mason provides its students, and I am excited to join such a caring and supportive community.
What are some of your goals for the Office of Admissions?
One thing that I noticed about Mason when I applied for the job is that we have very ambitious enrollment goals. Early on, I saw video of President Washington talking about Mason possibly growing to 50,000 students. That number might seem like a heavy lift in this climate, but I like our ambition and competitive spirit.
I've worked in admissions and enrollment management for the last 21 years, and I've led multiple institutions to record enrollment. I understand student recruitment, how to implement an effective strategic plan, and how to develop new markets. These are all things that I've had tremendous success doing over my career. For me, [50,000 students] is just another challenge. It gives me the opportunity put the things that I've learned over the course of my career to work and to do it on a larger scale. I am also very excited for the opportunity to expand our college access initiatives. As a first-generation college student, I'm a firm believer that higher education has transformative power for all, and everyone should have a goal for some type of formal education beyond high school. I feel like there's an opportunity for Mason to become a beacon of hope for every student in this region and throughout the state. I look forward to expanding our reach into the rural areas of Virginia, supporting underserved student populations in the DMV, and creating clearer pathways for everyone to pursue higher education.
What was your experience like as a first-generation student?
I'm from a typical Midwest working-class family. My father was an open-road truck driver who left to work for weeks at a time. My mother primarily worked for the post office but usually had two or three jobs to make ends meet. They worked hard to create a better life for me and my siblings. However, they weren't sure how we were going to be able to afford college. My parents told me that I was going to need to earn an athletic scholarship to attend college. I remember my father talking to me during my senior year when I hadn't received any offers yet. He said, if this football or track [scholarship] doesn't work out, we can start saving to send you to send you to trucking or trade school. I was thinking in the back of my mind—I do not want to do that.
I was very fortunate that I was able to earn both an athletic and academic scholarship to attend college. It meant a lot for me to be the first in my family to earn a college degree, and it put my life on a totally different trajectory in terms of just having things that people take for granted, such as a well-paying job, good health insurance, and the ability to travel and see the world. This standard of living did not seem to be attainable where I was raised. Therefore, I take great pride in providing these opportunities for as many others as possible, especially for talented students who don't believe they can afford college.
What sport did you end up playing?
So another thing about me—I'm extremely stubborn. [Laughs] I received several track scholarship offers my senior year, but I was dead set on playing college football. Since I was a smaller guy, I didn't get any Division 1 offers for football. I actually turned down a track scholarship at the school that I attended to walk onto the football team. My parents were not happy with that decision, but I was confident in myself. After one year as a football walk-on, I earned a scholarship as a kick returner. Fortunately, the Pell Grant and my academic scholarship provided me with enough financial support to get me through my first year.
What do you do for fun?
I try to stay as active as possible. I love to exercise—run, bike, hike, and all of that. My two sons, Alexander and Aidan, keep me busy. Now I spend most of my leisure time taking them to all their games and events—which includes swimming, soccer, Cub Scouts, baseball, and basketball. My wife, Kimela West-Byrd, is also a former college athlete and huge sports fan, so you will see us at a lot of Mason athletic events.
So how did your first year at Mason go?
It has been great so far. The first six months were tough because it was primarily virtual. But since we've been back on campus, it's been amazing to finally get to meet people in-person and start developing relationships. In my first year with the team, we brought in the largest class of new students in school history. Now we just have to do it again and keep things moving in the right direction. I can't wait to get into the local high schools and community colleges. I thoroughly enjoy supporting school districts with their college and career planning, so I hope we have opportunities to do more in that space. I want every student in this region to have some type of relationship or experience with Mason.