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George Mason University

First generation students in the Honors College reflect on partnership with EIP

September 23, 2020   /   by Sophia Chapin

The Honors College and Early Identification Program work together to foster inclusive excellence at Mason. 

The Honors College seeks to instill life-long learning, curiosity, and critical-thinking in motivated students across all disciplines. Early Identification Program (EIP) is designed to close the access gap in higher education by providing college access resources and readiness support to prospective first-generation college students. The program encourages student success with a holistic approach to academic and personal achievement.

Over the years, the Honors College and EIP have worked together to develop the successful College Application Coaches program, to increase the representation of EIP students in the Honors College, and to help EIP students successfully compete for University Scholars scholarships. Last year, EIP and the Honors College received a $100,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation to support their efforts to provide EIP students access to excellence beyond high school. This grant funded the I-Achieve Scholarships that were awarded to incoming EIP students Kristen Alleyne and Elene Lipartiani and funded the creation of a Pre-Honors Seminar for 10th Grade Students during 2020 Summer Academy

Pre-Honors Seminar in Summer Academy

Each Summer, EIP hosts the three week-long Summer Academy, which is intended to provide students with additional academic support over the summer. 

“As a student, I think Summer Academy is the most impactful thing over everything [else] because they teach you what you're supposed to learn before you learn it for the upcoming year, so it just makes you feel less anxious and more ready to take on that year,” says Hannan Isse, an EIP alumna and Honors College student. 

In addition to preparing for the upcoming year, tenth grade students got extra inspiration from the Pre-Honors Seminar, which was funded by the grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, along with material support from the Honors College and EIP. The Pre-Honors seminar gave these students the opportunity to learn directly from faculty from the Honors College and University Libaries, to experience what is exciting and fun about the small challenge-driven seminar courses they will enccounter in college, and to interact directly with Honors College students like Isse who served as near-peer mentors in each class. 

In addition to educational support, Summer Academy imparts a sense of confidence and kinship in its students. “The whole goal of Summer Academy is, one, to kind of get you to see what a college campus is like and, two, to help you in your first quarter of school,” shares Bianca Otero, another EIP alumna who is now in the Honors College and helped to support  the Pre-Honors Seminar as a near-peer mentor. When she went to Summer Academy, there was an emphasis on finding a community. “They would encourage us to say ‘I belong’, meaning that even if you're first-gen and female, you still belong in universities.”

Honors College students like Isse and Otero were able to get academic credit for helping: they took Dr. Melanie Fedri's HNRS 361 Multidisciplinary Practicum: Teaching Climate Change course. They had the opportunity to "learn by teaching": these near-peer mentors helped to provide lessons on multidisciplinary approaches to climate change, participated in student success interventions for the EIP students in their classes, and led question and answer periods with EIP students about college academic and social life. 

College Application Coaching: EIP and Honors College Alumna Jenisha Chudal reflects on mentoring EIP students

Honors College students have the opportunity to support this partnership by taking HNRS 261: Community Connection Practicum: College Application Coaches, which provides both Honors College mentors and high school mentees a space to develop knowledge, skills, and establish meaningful relationships. College Application Coaches creates a moment for EIP alumni to come full circle in their EIP journey, while also helping high school students write a solid college essay. Furthermore, as Khaseem Davis, Director of the Early Identification Program, explains, many of the College Application Coaches “are high achieving students, who would have received admission to many competitive schools, so they understand what needs to go into a well-written essay. Further, the proximity in age is also important.”

Davis remarks on how mentorship plays an important role in the success of students in these regards: “The mentorship provided by EIP is usually delivered by former EIP students who are at Mason. This sends a powerful message and reinforces the notion of success [and] the benefits of personal sacrifice while providing a visual statement to students that they too can achieve.”

When EIP alumna Jenisha Chudal, a senior majoring in Global and Community Health, participated in EIP in Spring 2019, she was reminded of her own path to Mason. “I know when I was in EIP, there was someone who was [a] part of the Honors College, and that's how I found out about it.” While working with EIP students over the course of a semester, Chudal similarly acted as an inspiration and source of comfort amid the uncertainties of applying to college. “I think us being there encouraged them to come to the course more, because they got to see [the] things that we were doing [in college] and maybe even imagine, ‘Hey, I can be in that position as well.’”

Like most EIP students, Chudal was selected for the program in seventh grade and found it provided critical support during her sophomore and junior years of high school. “If it wasn't [for] EIP, I wouldn't have known where to look [for information on applying to college.]”

For low-income students, involvement in EIP removes the economic barrier that would otherwise accompany attending an enrichment program. “They're selflessly helping you because you don't have to pay for anything,” says Chudal.

Throughout their time in EIP, students attend weekly tutoring sessions for assistance with their homework and college applications. “The fact that they told me [about] the college application process before my junior year of high school — I think that was really helpful,” says Chudal.

Now graduated, Chudal is looking ahead in her higher education journey. She plans to work for a few years — helping others — before enrolling in a master’s program.

AMP Site Mentorship: Honors College student Jasmine James supports EIP's programs

One of the lessons at the heart of EIP is that the mentorship can change lives.

Like Chudal, Jasmine James served as a College Application Coach, helping students begin their college application process and provding a near-peer mentor to studetns who often do not have people who have attended college in their households. James grew up outside of the area and wasn't an EIP alumna herself, but she has had an ongoing role working for EIP and supporting their mission.

Outside of her capacity as as one of the Honors College's College Application Coaches, James also has been helping EIP with their EIP’s Academic Mentoring Program sites. The Academic Mentoring Program provides students with extra academic and social support at a weekly after-school meeting, during which they check in with success coordinators like James, have structured study time, and can receive help with their homework.

For James, serving in this capacity has been immensely rewarding. She shared one of her experiences with a student who was “in eighth grade, and every week all she talked about was how she wanted to drop out.” After two years of tutoring, James feels the student has made “a complete 180,” driven to get all A’s and began arriving at the Academic Mentoring Program sessions with a newfound purpose.

University Scholars: Bringing some of the most motivated EIP alumni to Mason

In recent years, the University Scholar program in Mason's Honors College has attracted several motivated EIP alumni to Mason, where they've given back both to the EIP program and to the Honors College. 

EIP alumna and University Scholar Hanan Isse highlights the role that mentoring provided by the program had in helping her achieve at the highest level, but says that she values the relationships she made in the process most. “You're with these people for five years [...] I had one friend where I was just with her through middle school and then [we] went to different high schools, but we're still best friends just because of the EIP program.”

Like Chudal, Isse felt motivated to prepare for college in her junior year thanks to the program. “In the beginning, I remember they showed us statistics of people who didn't go to college and people who did go to college, and that was really impactful.”

She also says EIP brought clarity to the whole college application process, and that most students lack the same guidance. “As a first-gen college student, it's a whole new battlefield for you, so having people to walk you through and explain every little detail to make sure you're on the right path that you should be [is helpful],” explains Isse. The program creates a window for its students to strive further and see all the possibilities available.

Prior to her work as a near-peer mentor in the Pre-Honors Seminar in Summer 2020, Isse had served as a College Application Coach in Spring 2020. As a College Application Coach, Isse wanted her mentees to believe in themselves, too.

The experience was especially powerful for Isse as a college freshman: “Because I’m freshly out of high school, I remember exactly what they're going through,” tells Isse. In the role of College Application Coach, Isse also gained a fresh perspective on the power of mentorship. “It reminded me of when Erica, [my mentor as a high school student], was trying to do the same exact thing for me. It was kind of just deja vu and [...] by the end of that week, I helped [my mentee] write an entire essay. Now, [my mentee] is reading to go, so that made it full circle for me.”

Isse credits EIP with supporting her achievements so far. “The reason why I chose the Honors College was because of Khaseem Davis, the Director of EIP." Davis had pointed out that  “It's a whole new pool of more opportunities, more scholarships, [and] research.”

After earning her Bachelor’s in Accounting and Information Systems and Operations Management, Isse dreams to continue aiding others by earning a master’s degree and joining the Peace Corps.

EIP Support: Challenging students to achieve at the highest level

For Bianca Otero, who is attending the Honors College with an EIP scholarship, a connection with the Honors College started before she even began applications.

She remembers how her mentor from the Honors College, Jessie, helped her with physics: “Without her, I wouldn't have been able to do it, there's just no way.” Throughout her time at Mason, Jessie has continued to support Otero with advice on which classes to take.

Otero says the instruction provided by EIP is the program’s most valuable asset. “Being first-gen, it's really hard sometimes when your parents don't really understand the education system.” This came into play while providing information to her mentees as a College Application Coach in Spring 2020 and then again in her support of the Pre-Honors Seminar in Summer 2020.

“You have to just kind of work with the student on where they're at in the process,” she says. Importantly, Otero was able to relate with the fear and anxiety her students felt during the process and utilize that understanding to make a difference. “[While] helping students out, you kind of just see your [past] self in it for a second. You're like, 'Yeah, this used to be me,’” Otero remembers.  

Currently a government major, Otero is considering changing her degree to one in education. “I was always thinking of getting my master's in school counseling to hopefully help kids in the same way I'm helping them with EIP — [that’s] my aspiration.”