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Removing Barriers, Together

Success in life is driven by many factors, including ambition, creativity, and just plain grit. Many young people, however, face barriers beyond their control that prevent them from accessing a college education. How can philanthropy help remove those barriers for as many students as possible?

That was the question at the 2018 Celebration of Scholarships, held March 22 at the Westwood Country Club in Vienna, Virginia. More than 270 George Mason University scholarship donors and student recipients came together for the event, celebrating the impact of the generous gifts, while reinforcing the fact that many more students remain in need.

“For some students, the difference between being able to go to school or not may be only a thousand bucks,” said University President Ángel Cabrera, himself a Fulbright Scholarship recipient at Georgia Tech. “And that’s the difference between an individual fulfilling his or her own potential and being able to make a big difference for the rest of us, or that talent being wasted.”

Master of ceremonies Christopher Preston, BS Management ’96, recalled the key to his own Mason journey: a scholarship program that provided full tuition and room and board for one student from each of Virginia’s congressional districts. Preston credits the scholarship for removing the barriers he faced and setting him on a new path in life.

“That Mason Scholarship program doesn’t exist anymore, but it is my dream to reestablish it,” said Preston, a past president of the Alumni Association. “I want more of Virginia’s students to have a chance to pursue higher education and change the trajectory of their lives, just as that scholarship did for me.” Preston also noted that the Alumni Association is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, and is marking the milestone with the 50th Anniversary Scholarship Endowment.

Preston was just one of several former students-turned-donors in attendance that night.

Another was David Brown, PhD Information Technology ’04, who began supporting the Volgenau School of Engineering soon after completing his degree. A 22-year Navy veteran, Brown now helps to fund scholarship programs for young engineers. Looking back at his time as a PhD candidate, Brown recalled the crowded halls of S&T 2 (now called Exploratory Hall after heavy renovations), and the difficulty of just trying to find a place to sit in his professor’s office to discuss his dissertation.

“There’s a real need here that I know firsthand. I have the resources to do it, so I’m going to start giving back,” Brown said.

Mason alumna Ann Messerschmidt Lee, who earned her Master of Music in 2010, was among the evening’s performers. Lee, who received two separate scholarships to help fund her graduate studies at Mason, performed two piano pieces: a Dvorak piece with her mentor, Dr. Linda Monson, director of the School of Music, and a Schubert piece with Faith Ellen Lam, a member of the class of 2020 who is studying English and music. Today, Lee runs her own piano studio and supports several scholarship funds at Mason that benefit students like Lam.

“I want to support the phenomenal work being done at Mason,” said Lee. “Higher education is expensive. I do not think the answer is to pay the world-class staff less, or cut programs, but to help motivated students get access to them.”

Thanks to hundreds of generous scholarship donors, Mason continues to make strides to remove barriers and open doors for more students. As President Cabrera stressed, we measure our success not by how many students we turn away, but how many lives we can change.

March 27, 2018 / Christopher Bobo

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