Mason's Honors College offers students a transformational journey
April 11, 2019 / by Damian Cristodero
The Honors College at George Mason University invites its students to take risks in their education, research consequential questions and debate what they find.
Honors College students represent the full range of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences in the larger Mason student body, and they thrive in an atmosphere in which they are challenged to achieve academically, personally and in their civic lives.
“The multidisciplinary emphasis gives Honors College students the opportunity to benefit from the challenge of learning and communicating with those whose perspectives are very different than their own,” Honors College dean Zofia Burr said. “It sounds very basic, but it’s transformational.”
Established in 2009, Mason’s Honors College has 1,600 students who meet in small classes of 25 students or less. Its purpose is to inspire students to pursue the most enriching educational opportunities and provide an interdisciplinary setting to conduct research and engage in open discussion.
Field trips, enrichment workshops, small seminars and opportunities for internships, study abroad and community service give students the opportunity to complement their classroom learning with hands-on experiences.
“It’s like having the advantages of a small liberal arts college in the context of a Research 1 university,” Mason President Ángel Cabrera said, referring to Mason’s ranking as one of the nation’s top research institutions by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. “The Honors College is absolutely a jewel within the university.”
Generally, 12 percent of incoming students at Mason are accepted into the Honors College, with an average weighted high school GPA of 4.0. Twenty-two percent of students are Pell Grant-eligible, 21 percent are first-generation students and 39 percent are a racial or ethnic minority.
“There is only one thing we count on all Honors College students to share,” Burr said. “That is the motivation of students to reach their fullest potential, whatever that may be.”
Gaining the tools to succeed
All Honors College students begin self-directed research in their first semester and develop research skills throughout the curriculum.
Beverly Harp, BA Global Affairs ’18, focused her freshman project on how U.S. economic policy influences human trafficking and later developed a Fulbright research proposal on gender equity and climate finance. Now a digital communications manager for Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, she said the research experience provided invaluable skills that helped her earn a prestigious Critical Language Scholarship and a Fulbright research grant.
“Just having those tools empowered me,” Harp said. “I know what the process is when I have a question. I know how you are supposed to ask and narrow things down. I understand the basics of what you have to do to get your research taken seriously in academia.”
For Dominic Pino, Class of 2021, the diversity of the Honors College’s student population provided an opportunity to expand his worldview.
“In every Honors College class I’ve been in, there is never a plurality of one major,” said the economics major, whose freshman research project focused on the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. “You can learn so much from different people who come from different subject areas and different perspectives and beliefs. The collision of all those ideas is a really good academic environment.”
“That comes from the ethos that everyone who works for the Honors College, whether a professor or administrator, takes students seriously and values their intellectual contribution to the class,” Harp said. “The idea is you’re in class to expand your mind and be nurtured.”
A world of opportunities
Students in the Honors College receive extra support with identifying and pursuing enriching learning experiences, both within and outside the curriculum.
“The commitment to student success is very unique,” said LaNitra Berger, director of fellowships and faculty at the college. “And we don’t just focus on academics. We look at everything a student should be doing as far as their undergraduate career. The student should be doing internships; they should be studying abroad; they should be doing research, community service. We have staff members at the Honors College whose job it is to help students connect with those opportunities.”
One of Berger’s jobs is to connect students with fellowship and scholarship opportunities. She has helped students secure more than 100 prestigious national and international awards, such as with the Truman, Fulbright, Boren, Critical Language, Goldwater, Udall and Gillman programs.
Fifty-seven percent of Mason students receiving fellowships since 2014 are from underrepresented groups, including first-generation students, students of color and those with disabilities.
Berger’s success in creating an inclusive fellowships office is internationally recognized and has led her to work with some of Mason’s Fulbright alumni to address diversity issues in the Fulbright Program.
“We have graduates who are really going on to make important contributions,” Berger said. “They’ve extended their minds. They’ve challenged themselves. The students come here with the interest in doing great things, and then doing those great things out in the world.”
About those outcomes, Dean Burr said: “When you embrace the responsibility that comes from belonging to a group where every person’s contribution matters, and you have the opportunity to listen to and learn from those who see the world very differently than you, your abilities to create and contribute expand and prepare you to be extraordinarily effective in whatever you choose to do.”