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George Mason University Program for First-generation Students Celebrates Milestone


George Mason University’s Early Identification Program celebrated its 20th anniversary on Tuesday by welcoming a new batch of students and congratulating those who finished the program this past year. EIP has had an enviable track record, sending 96 percent of its graduates on to college.

EIP identifies local seventh-graders who have high potential but are at risk of not attending college without extra support. The four-year program, which features annual summer academies, prepares the students for the college application process. Currently, 45 percent of the program’s participants are Hispanic and 39 percent are Black. Participants receive tutoring sessions and SAT-preparation courses, and are advised on ways to put together a winning college application form. Students who complete the program and graduate from high school or guaranteed admission to GMU.

EIP director Hortensia B. Cadenas says the program relies on middle school counselors to recommend students.

“This is not just for minorities,” she says. “We look for bright, first-generation students who have the potential [to go to college,] and then a screening committee approves.”

The Cuban-born Cadenas says the students are like her children and she can identify with their struggles.

“I did not speak English when I came to the United States, and I had to carry a Spanish/English dictionary with me to learn the language,” she says. “I personally understand the need these students have for support and direction.”

Former graduates of the program say EIP made a dramatic difference in their lives.

According to Margarita Jaramillo de Abreu, a 2000 graduate of the program and now a tutoring coordinator at EIP, it was like an awakening. The Columbian immigrant says she was raised in a single-parent, low-income household.

“Before EIP, I thought college was only in the movies,” de Abreu says. “For the first time, I knew there was a chance to get a full scholarship to go to college.”

Agartha Amooson, another EIP graduate who earned her master’s degree in psychology from GMU in 2006, says the program changed her attitude towards college.

“If you were not earning the grade, you were guaranteed to receive a phone call from the office inquiring about the drop in grade. This is a powerful statement to students, knowing and understanding that someone out there cares that much about their success in life,” says Amooson, who now works in human resources.

She says going to actual college campuses for the events also made a difference.

“We got to see what a university really looks like and it really makes a difference,” says de Abreu. “It makes it more accessible, real and attainable.”

Amooson says she was working full-time and was struggling in class as a high school senior. To keep her grades up, Cadenas made sure Amooson received special tutoring lessons on the GMU campus.

“The program truly boosted my self-confidence. It increased my drive and motivation to do well in life, and I was able to see that hard work pays off,” says Abreu doesn’t agree with the term “at-risk” students. She says it is a program for low income, first-generation students with potential and they need more guidance and organization.

Cadenas agrees and adds that they are lucky to have the support of GMU.

“Mason is concerned about the community, and if every university had a program like this, it would make a tremendous impact,” she says.

— By Shilpa Banerji


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