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

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. The  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. By working together, we encourage success by offering holistic support for students' 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. 

Hannan Isse, an EIP alumna and Honors College student, reflected back on her experience, observing that Summer Academy helped her feel "less anxious and more ready to take on that year" each year she was in high school.

In addition to preparing for the upcoming year during Summer Academy, this year's tenth grade students got extra inspiration from the Pre-Honors Seminar. 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 in its students and cultivates a sense that they belong in the Mason community. “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 with the Pre-Honors seminar: 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. 

The Pre-Honors seminar was made possible with a generous grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, along with material support from the University Libraries, EIP, and the Honors College.

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

The Pre-Honors seminar is just one of several opportunities for Honors College students to work with EIP.  In HNRS 261: Community Connection Practicum: College Application Coaches, Honors College mentors work with high school mentees who are developing their college applications. The students are given space to establish meaningful relationships while developing knowledge and skills necessary to succeed. 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." He points out that having Honors College students who are close in age to the EIP mentees with whom they work helps those mentees see themselves as future Honros College students.

When EIP alumna Jenisha Chudal, a senior majoring in Global and Community Health, participated in College Application Coaches during Spring 2019, she was reminded how she came to be a part of the Honors College. “I know when I was in EIP, there was someone who was [a] part of the Honors College, and that's how I first found out about it.” While working with EIP students over the course of a semester, Chudal acted as an inspiration and source of comfort for others. “I think us being there encouraged them." She thinks EIP students who met their College Application Coaches on campus benefitted most, "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 makes many college-readiness programs inaccessible: “They're selflessly helping you because you don't have to pay for anything,” says Chudal. “The fact that they told me [about] the college application process before my junior year of high school — I think that was really helpful."

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 near-peer mentorship to students who do not have people who 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 during her time at Mason.

Outside of her capacity as as one of the Honors College's College Application Coaches, James also has been helping at 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 that illustrates the impact that near-peer mentoring can have. She was working 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,” now feels driven to get all A’s and now arrives at the Academic Mentoring Program sessions each week wth a sense of purpose and focus.

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

In recent years, the University Scholars program in Mason's Honors College has attracted several motivated EIP alumni to Mason.

EIP alumna and University Scholar Hanan Isse says that she values the relationships she made in the process most. In EIP, she says, “you're with these people for five years [...] I had one friend I was with through middle school and then [we] went to different high schools, but we're still best friends because of the EIP program.”

Like Chudal, Isse feels the program motivated her to begin preparing for college during her junior year. “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: “As a first-gen college student, it's a whole new battlefield for you, so having people to walk you through and explain the details to make sure you're on the right path" is particularly helpful. 

As a near-peer mentor in the Pre-Honors Seminar and as a College Application Coach, Isse focused on helping her students believe in themselves, since this helped her feel motivated when she was in the program.

Working as a College Application Coach 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,” says 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," a mentor Isse had when she was a high school student in EIP, "was trying to do the same exact thing for me. It was kind of just deja vu." 

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 opportunities, scholarships, and chances to conduct research.”

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

EIP Support: Challenging students to achieve at the highest level

Honors College students helped Bianca Otero with her academics. 

She remembers how a 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 about 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.” As a College Application Coach in Spring 2020  and as a near-peer mentor in Pre-Honors Seminar in Summer 2020, she found opportunities to help EIP students develop the "college knowledge" needed to understand how higher education works. 

“You have to just kind of work with the student from wherever they are at in the process,” she says. Importantly, Otero was able to relate with the fear and anxiety her students felt during the process. She utilized 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.  

Otero is attending the Honors College with support of an EIP scholarship. She's exploring different majors, including government and 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.”