Mason Grads Have Stories to Tell

Posted: May 14, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Grads at Commencement
Although Mason’s thousands of graduates this year — 6,793, to be exact — may look like one big mass of humanity, each of them has a story to tell, often inspiring. Commencement is Saturday, May 19, at the Patriot Center.
Creative Services photo

It’s easy to view Mason’s class of 2007 — 6,793 students strong — as a mass consisting of anonymous individuals who fulfilled their academic requirements and will soon move on to another phase of their lives. But spend some time talking to just a few of them and you realize that each has a special story, often inspiring.

While it’s impossible to tell all of those stories, the Gazette staff interviewed some of the students who have distinguished themselves during their careers at Mason: a forensics champ; a student whose daily commute inspired a study; a Ghanaian immigrant who found his calling in a nursing home; an outstanding teacher; a geek who turned his video gaming into a career; a serial degree-earner; and a precocious homeschooler.

Forensics Veteran Bids Farewell to Team

By Catherine Probst

Becky Shuster
Becky Shuster
Photo by Evan Cantwell

As she rehearsed her speech this spring for an upcoming tournament, Becky Shuster couldn’t help thinking that her final performance was right around the corner.

That’s because Shuster, a communication major and member of the Mason Forensics team, is graduating this Saturday.

“As the only graduating senior on the team, I’ll definitely miss the teammates I’m leaving behind,” says Shuster. “I’ll also miss the thrill of performing and having the opportunity to speak about whatever I want while everyone gives me their full attention.”

Shuster is a forensics veteran, having been a member of her high school team for four years before joining Mason’s team as a freshman.

“I joined my high school forensics team by accident. I found out the team had events that involved acting and performing, which I love, so I joined right away,” says Shuster. “I chose to attend Mason because of its impressive Forensics Team.” With 14,000 trophies to its credit, the team is the university’s most successful academic team.

Among the personal awards of which she is most proud is placing in the top 12 in the nation for Communication Analysis at the 2005-06 American Forensics Association National Tournament and placing in the top 24 at the 2006-07 tournament. In addition, in each of the four years she’s been at Mason, the Forensics Team finished in the top 10 during the tournament.

After graduation, Shuster plans to stay in Virginia and work at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, where she is currently an intern.

“Although I’m not sure where I’ll be in the next 10 years, I know that the communication skills I learned through my years in forensics will aid me in whatever career I pursue. Communication is often highly undervalued and yet it is probably the most important tool any organization can have.”

PhD Candidate Strikes a Chord with Commuters

By Tara Laskowski

Mitchell Baer
Mitchell Baer
Photo courtesy Mitchell Baer

The next time you are stuck in gridlock traffic, gritting your teeth in frustration, consider this: commuters prefer driving alone over taking mass transit or participating in a carpool because they feel more comfortable and in control during the trip.

According to “The Emotional Response to Commuting,” a study by Mason PhD candidate Mitchell Baer, motorists would rather deal with long lines of traffic than sacrifice the comfort and control of their own cars.

Using a recently developed, innovative survey technique called the Day Reconstruction Method, Baer surveyed close to 900 households and found that commuters who drive alone, as opposed to taking mass transit or carpooling, feel more emotionally satisfied with their commute, even if it ends up taking longer or costing more.

“With cars affording more creature comforts and independence and mass transit options becoming more crowded and uncomfortable — especially in light of [Washington, D.C.] Metro’s recent experiment to remove seats from its subway cars — it will be difficult to convince commuters to switch away from driving alone to and from work,” says Baer.

Baer, who will graduate with a PhD in Environmental Science and Public Policy, is interested in how this information can affect public policy and transportation planning efforts.

“Transportation planning agencies hoping to reduce congestion by shifting commuters from driving alone to mass transit should look at transportation strategies that provide mass transit commuters with additional control over their commuting environments and improved comfort during their commutes,” concludes Baer.

Mason Student Follows His Heart in Helping Others

By Catherine Probst

Kwaku Boateng
Kwaku Boateng
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Since coming to the United States from Ghana five years and five months ago, Kwaku Boateng, a student in the Health Administration and Policy program, has worked as a flagger for a construction company, a night stocker for Food Lion and a bus boy for Polo Grill.

But all that is behind him: On Saturday, Boateng will receive his master’s in health systems management, with a concentration in assisted living/senior housing administration.

Boateng has been working at Sunrise Senior Living, the leading senior housing company in the world, for the past three and a half years. He began as a caregiver, graduated to a medication technician and is currently the assisted living coordinator. He supervises 35 direct care staff and is responsible for the overall management and success of the Alzheimer’s and assisted living units.

After working for Sunrise for more than two and a half years and weighing the demands of the market, Boateng decided to enroll at Mason, which was the only university in the country offering a master’s program in assisted living management.

At the same time, Boateng took a full-time job as a resident manager at New Hope Housing, a housing agency for the homeless, and continued part-time with Sunrise. He managed to complete his academic work while employed 60 hours a week.

“After starting my course work and being promoted to residential coordinator at New Hope, I started having the feeling that I could run an assisted living building,” says Boateng.

While working and going to school full time, Boateng also got married and recently became a father. Throughout, he maintained a 3.6 GPA.

Boateng will be the first recipient of the Rachel O. Merritt Award in Senior Housing Administration at his college’s convocation. He will dedicate the award to his wife and six-month-old daughter, Megan.

After graduation, Boateng plans to stay at his position at Sunrise and will apply to the company’s executive director training program. If all goes well, he will run a building as the executive director a year from now.

“The most valuable part of my job is making a difference in someone else’s life,” says Boateng. “I have learned to stay focused and determined and follow my heart in what I want to achieve because, even though I want to make ends meet, my innermost desire is to help those in need.”

Award-Winning Teacher Grows Up to Meet Her Goal

By Dave Andrews

Denise Yassine
Denise Yassine
Photo by Nicolas Tan

The desire to teach and to learn has been with Denise Yassine for as long as she can remember.

Yassine, a third-grade school teacher at Flint Hill School in Oakton, Va., recalls cleaning out her closet one day last month and finding a report she wrote as a sixth grader entitled “When I Grow Up.” Reading through the pages, she was reminded of what sparked her interest in becoming a teacher.

“I feel that in grade school, children are more capable of learning,” Yassine wrote. “I love children and want to help them in the future … I want to see them doing their best because I taught them to have confidence. I don’t know how well I will hold the responsibility, but I will try very hard to be a good teacher.”

Yassine came through on her promise to herself. In her quest to become the most effective educator she can be, Yassine will graduate from Mason with a master’s degree in education.

“I thought that the program was rigorous, thorough and extremely beneficial in terms of preparing me to be a reflective practitioner across the curriculum,” explains Yassine, who began the master’s program in 2001. “I feel that I’ve developed a strong teaching philosophy that will serve me well and deepen as I mature as a teacher.”

Yassine’s degree from Mason isn’t the only honor she’s receiving. She was also recognized with the Driving Spirit Award from Flint Hill School and the Faculty Choice Award from the Graduate School of Elementary Education at Mason.

The Driving Spirit Award is given to those who have demonstrated a commitment to teaching, ethical leadership and diligent intellectual scholarship.

“Being recognized with these awards has been a tremendous honor,” Yassine says. “I was humbled to be acknowledged among so many other faculty and staff who have a passion for their profession and care as deeply about our students as I do.”

This Geek’s Got Game

By Jennifer Freeman

Mike Gagnon
Mike Gagnon
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Knowing Mike Gagnon’s keen interest in computer security and artificial intelligence research, as well as plans to pursue not only a master’s degree but also a PhD in computer science, people might be surprised by his true passion – video game design.

Gagnon, who will graduate with a BS in Computer Science this Saturday, has been creating video games since he was in fifth grade. He is responsible for the hugely popular Road Blocks and Road Blocks 2 games available on the Internet. Even with a prestigious job lined up at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Gagnon plans to find plenty of spare time to pursue his dream of starting his own video game design company.

“I hope to begin the company by continuing to self-publish games on the Internet,” said Gagnon. “Self-publishing provides a way to level the playing field. I can develop the product and publish it without needing to work with large corporations.”

Gagnon has been an undergraduate research assistant at Mason’s Center for Secure Information Systems and was an undergraduate peer advisor for the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering. He has also been selected as the student speaker for the school’s convocation.

Gagnon appeared in the Mason regional advertisement campaign this spring with roommate and fellow video game designer Steve Taylor.

Not Ready to Retire

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Norman White
Norman White
Photo courtesy Norman White

This isn’t Norman White’s first degree, nor will it be his last. On Saturday, Mason’s oldest graduate will receive his first PhD. At the age of 71, White has a portfolio that includes five academic degrees from a variety of universities, a plethora of certificates, a top secret clearance, and 123 graduate-level credits earned toward his doctoral program.

The road to his doctorate in biodefense wasn’t a straight one. With more than 50 years of computer programming experience, White was naturally drawn to programs in information technology, then computational sciences, before finally settling on Mason’s new doctoral program in biodefense. Still, in his dissertation work, he brought his computer skills to bear on the topic of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

He created a web tool that will crawl the Internet “searching for web sites that contain information that would be indicative of some individual, organization, or country engaging in the sale, acquisition, creation, or research into a potential weapon of mass destruction,” to quote his dissertation, and the crawler can do it in both English and Spanish. White has begun developing its use in Korean, but found it would probably take an additional year because of the complexity of the language. He did all this while continuing to work full time.

This grandfather of five is a principal systems engineer for Insequence working on a special project – classified, of course – for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. In his spare time, he divides his time between cultural pursuits with Carole, his wife of 48 years, and his volunteer work with the Masons and the Shriners, where he heads up one of the units.

When asked when he plans to retire, White jokingly suggests the age of 123.

“All that stuff about being too old, it’s a myth. You are never too old,” he says, and he means it. In August, White begins work on his juris doctor at the Concord Law School.

Youngest Grad Has Many Talents

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Christian Yingling
Christian Yingling
Photo by Evan Cantwell

During exam week, you could find Mason’s youngest graduate, Christian Yingling, in the Johnson Center studying with her mother. As Yingling prepared for final exams, her mother, retired Army colonel Denise Baken, was working on her dissertation for a PhD in Biodefense she plans to finish this summer.

“Education is a big thing for my family,” says 18-year-old Yingling, who is graduating with a bachelor of arts in music. Homeschooled by her parents, Yingling says school started each day at 6 a.m. before her mother left for work. Then her father took over.

“He instructed us in history and math,” she says. “Those times with my dad are some of the best memories I have. We would sit on the patio and read biographies and autobiographies of historical figures.”

When she decided she wanted to attend college at the age of 14, Yingling tried to apply to Mason, but was turned down. “They said I was too young.” So she began attending Trinity University in Washington, D.C., commuting from her home in Manassas. There, she resisted telling people her age. “I wanted to be taken for who I was, not for how old I was.”

When she transferred to Mason two years later, Yingling didn’t waste any time getting involved. In her short Mason career, she has served as editor in chief of Broadside, the campus newspaper, and as resident advisor in the Liberty Square residence hall; had an opinion piece published in the New York Times; and performed two arias in the Music Department’s Honors Recital, one of the department’s highest achievements.

An extremely poised young woman with an extraordinary smile, Yingling is uncertain about her plans for the immediate future. A lyric soprano, she would like to have a career in musical theater and wants to continue studying music. “It is such a competitive field that it helps to be classically trained,” she says.

Her dream role? “Madame Butterfly,” she says without hesitation. “But I don’t have a voice big enough for Puccini.” However, she thinks Disney’s Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” might just be perfect for her.

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