Commencement 2006: Hard Work and Memories for 6,803 Students

Posted: May 15, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

new graduates
On Saturday, May 20, thousands of Mason students will converge at the Patriot Center for the university’s 39th Commencement.

By Gazette Staff

George Mason University holds commencement ceremonies Saturday, May 20, for the class of 2006, graduating 6,803 students with 3,843 bachelor’s degrees, 2,505 master’s degrees, 190 doctoral degrees and 265 law degrees. Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University in New Orleans, is this year’s commencement speaker.

Commencement begins at 10 a.m. in the Patriot Center on the Fairfax Campus.

Among the thousands of graduates are thousands of stories of hardships, perseverance, initiative and success. For some, Commencement is the beginning of an exciting new chapter in their lives; for others, this moment is bittersweet, as grads leave behind memories of college days that will last a lifetime. Here are a few of those stories.

Obtaining a Graduate Degree While Dodging Bullets

Army Reserve Lt. Col. Wes Girvin will graduate with a master’s degree in public administration after six years – and three deployments.

A defense contractor working at the Pentagon, Girvin began the rigorous MPA program in the spring of 2000 but completed only two courses before being activated for eight months to serve in Bosnia.

Back in the states, Girvin returned to school and to work at the Pentagon just days before the 9/11 attack. Not unexpectedly, he was soon gone again for a year to Kuwait and Afghanistan. His return to civilian life after this tour was a brief 17 days before he was reactivated for another full year and sent to Qatar and then the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Despite these three active-duty stints, Girvin managed to complete the 36 hours required to receive his degree and help raise his two children, now ages 10 and 12, with his wife of 17 years, Kathleen.

Girvin plans to continue his work with the Army’s Center for Resource Integration upon graduation.

“I could have never overcome all of the obstacles to this accomplishment without the support of my wife and family – so I am filling up my weekly planner, starting this summer, with day trips, sports, outdoor activities and other family business.”

Traveling Nearly 6,000 Miles for a Degree

Education is important to Najla Shawa. So important, she left her husband of six months in Palestine for a year and a half to travel to a foreign, and at times unfriendly, country to pursue her education.

She hasn’t been back home yet. Not even for a visit. The uncertain political terrain and border security in Gaza can make it risky for students to return home. They might not be allowed to re-exit.

Accepted into the Master’s in Public Policy program and funded by a generous scholarship from USAID, Shawa, who has an undergraduate degree in sociology from Birzeit University, was interested in learning about politics on the world stage.

Najla Shawa
Najla Shawa hopes to find work in a nongovernmental agency working in the Palestinian region.
Creative Services photo

Armed with her J-1 visa, Shawa set out to master the areas of ethics, policy analysis, government relations, organizational dynamics, budgetary processes and global challenges taught in the MPP program, determined to use this knowledge to help make the world she will soon return to a better place.

There was never a question in Shawa’s mind about whether she would return to her homeland. “I look at this as an opportunity to facilitate real change in my country, although it is getting more and more frustrating to think of it that way.” With her degree, Shawa hopes to find work in a nongovernmental agency working in the Palestinian region.

Shawa notes the biggest challenges she has faced in America are other people’s perceptions of Palestinians. “The Palestinian people are just like everyone else. We want the same things – good jobs, safe neighborhoods, quality educations for our children. And most importantly, dignity above all.”

Walking the Walk

Tiffany Mansfield doesn’t just talk about her passion for helping people, she does something about it. And on a large scale.

Tiffany Mansfield
Tiffany Mansfield founded Women of Value in Every Nation while a student at Mason and now plans to go on to law school.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Together with her mother, the Master’s in Public Administration graduate founded an international women’s educational nongovernmental organization, Women of Value in Every Nation (WOVEN). The group’s mission is to help women and their children achieve their “destiny of greatness” through education.

“My focus on nonprofit management has provided invaluable information and experience in helping my fledgling nonprofit soar,” says Mansfield. “I now serve as our vice-president and member of the board of directors, and I represent WOVEN in embassies, at fund-raisers and throughout our community.”

The group is funded through private donors and has plans to expand.

Mansfield has completed her studies in a record three consecutive semesters, leaving one wondering how she had the time to create and run a nonprofit as well. But Mansfield shrugs off references to her busy schedule.

“That’s just how I operate. I have a lot to accomplish.” Next step: law school at the University of Richmond.

Putting Gang Life behind Him

The violence-filled days of his youth a distant memory, Juan Pacheco, former gang member, will graduate this month with a degree in nursing. Juan credits his success to Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP), an innovative, multiyear college preparatory program for high school students.

Juan Pacheco
Juan Pacheco left wants to help youth in El Salvador make a better life for themselves.
Creative Services photo

“Juan is such a success story,” says EIP director Hortensia Cadenas. “I bring him in to talk to students, and his personal experiences are such motivation.” Without her guidance and the help of EIP, Juan easily admits he probably wouldn’t be where he is today.

Pacheco doesn’t like talking about his gang years, the five stints in jail or the violence he participated in and witnessed. Dwelling on that is where lawmakers and law enforcement go wrong, he says.

He prefers instead to talk about the positive aspects of his life and how preventative measures are needed to stop the flow of gang activity that has swept Northern Virginia in the last decade. He is concerned about the amount of state and federal dollars being directed at prosecution and incarceration instead of education.

Pacheco would like to see a different approach, such as one that involves programs like EIP and Barrios Unidos of Northern Virginia, where he serves as an outreach coordinator.

With his sights set on a master’s degree in public health, medical school and a life in El Salvador, his country of birth, Pacheco wants to give young people there something he didn’t have while growing up – hope.

Leaving – Gunston – Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Not all students are excited about graduation. Patrick Mazur, who is graduating with a bachelor of arts in art and visual technology, is actually a little sad.

“It got so nice right at the end … it makes it harder,” he says. It isn’t lecture halls or mid-terms that Mazur will be missing, but a big furry green suit. Mazur has been playing Gunston, Mason’s mascot, for three years, and the basketball team’s recent drive to the NCAA’s Final Four tournament provided a “wonderful capstone” to his “sports” career.

While caught up in the momentum of those crazy weeks in March, Mazur, who also works in the Admissions Office as an application processor, missed a lot of the media blitz that ensued. He is still catching up on the Mason coverage, as well as his school work, and counting down the days until Commencement.

“I have great memories of Mason outside of the suit, but it was a magical experience,” he says of his final season. “It still gives me goose bumps.”

Mazur has enjoyed working in the Admissions Office and would like to pursue a career in higher education.

Pep Rally
Pat Mazur, who played Gunston during the men’s basketball team’s exciting run to the NCAA Final Four, has mixed emotions about graduating.
Creative Services photo

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