Many Faces, Many Dreams: Mason’s Early Identification Program Celebrates 20 Years

Posted: December 18, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

EIP group
The many faces of the Early Identification Program. Director Hortensia Cadenas is at center.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Photographs fill the walls of Hortensia Cadenas’ office on the Fairfax Campus. Portraits of high school seniors and group shots of young people mugging for the camera – these are the success stories coming out of the Early Identification Program (EIP).

“They are like my children,” she says. “It is just so wonderful to know where they are and how their lives have changed.”

EIP, now in its 20th year, is a community outreach effort that identifies and engages high-risk, high-potential eighth- to 12th-grade students to encourage them to successfully complete a collegiate program in high school and enroll in college. The program is free to selected students.

Many program graduates do keep in touch, and Cadenas, who has been with EIP for 19 years, is supported by a staff of program alumni.

“EIP is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me,” says Rhina Ascencio, who graduated from the program in 2003 and is currently majoring in English and biology at Mason. “It changed my life and made me aware of things I would not have experienced on my own.”

EIP students
Mason students (from left) Marie Garces, Lady Ramirez and Guelila Fornetti; Early Identification Program (EIP) tutor coordinator Margarita Abreu; students Rhina Ascencio and Ana Gaitan; and EIP Associate Director Lewis Forrest II attended a Northern Virginia Community Foundation function where EIP was honored. The students participated in EIP before attending college.
Photo by Warren Mattox/Mattox Photography

Ascencio is currently working as an office assistant for the program, and her story isn’t unusual. One of the requirements for the program is that the student be the first generation entering college in their family, in addition to having high academic potential.

Preparation Makes Transition to College Easier

Middle school students enter the program at the end of seventh grade and attend three-week summer academies offered on the Fairfax and Prince William Campuses each year until they graduate from high school. The academies are designed to prepare the students for academic success by previewing the math, English and science requirements they will be expected to master in the upcoming school year.

“Every time I take a tour, I come away more excited about the program,” says university President Alan Merten of the summer academies. “I’m excited about what people are learning, but I’m as excited about what people are becoming as a result of what they’re learning. It is one of the highlights of the year for me.”

Hortensia Cadenas
Hortensia Cadenas, director of EIP

EIP partners with six school systems in Northern Virginia: Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William, Falls Church City, Manassas City and Manassas Park, using master teachers from those schools for the academies. Cadenas never has problems finding help.

“The same teachers come back year after year. They love working with our students,” she says. “And when someone does have to leave our program, they always have colleagues they want to recommend.”

To augment the academic preview, EIP offers SAT preparation, computer technology classes, cultural field trips and ongoing tutoring throughout the year. And just as important, EIP mentors the family along with the student by offering workshops for parents on communications, navigating the financial aid system and college preparation. Many EIP students come from single-parent families, and often there is a language barrier for the parents.

For EIP graduate Margarita Jaramillo de Abreu, having someone who was able to communicate with her mother in Spanish was an important component of what EIP had to offer. She and her mother emigrated from Colombia when she was a toddler and shared the same dream – for her to graduate from college. This became a reality when she graduated from Mason in 2004.

“Her career goals have always been mine,” says Jaramillo de Abreu of her mother. “We came to this country to give me a different opportunity, a chance to carve my own way.”

De Abreu now holds the coveted position of tutoring coordinator for EIP, a job that has been held by a succession of EIP grads. She also plans to work on a master’s degree in counseling at Mason.

Partnership Breeds Success

EIP was started in 1987 as part of a partnership between the university and the Fairfax County Area II Public Schools. Data were showing that minority student enrollment in college was low, partly because the students weren’t prepared when they reached college age.

Realizing that outreach to these populations needed to begin much earlier, E. Wayne Harris, then the Area II superintendent, suggested the program. EIP was born as a pilot program funded by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

EIP students are referred by guidance counselors and teachers and begin the program as eighth graders. Since its inception, more than 700 students have successfully completed high school, with many going on to universities such as Penn State, Johns Hopkins and William and Mary. Thanks to a growing scholarship program, a large number of the program graduates attend Mason, and more than 100 hold Mason degrees.

The program has garnered numerous awards for its efforts over the years, and Cadenas has been invited twice to the White House. The program was also singled out by President Bill Clinton as one of the top 18 programs in the country promoting partnerships between colleges and middle and junior high schools.

Currently, the program has more than 500 students enrolled. See the web site for more information.

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