George Mason University

News at Mason

In 25th Year, Early Identification Program Celebrates Success

January 18, 2012

On a Saturday morning when most Mason students were still asleep in their dorms, the rumble of a dozen school buses broke the morning’s crisp stillness. They came to the Fairfax Campus from school systems throughout Northern Virginia — Alexandria, Fairfax, Prince William, Arlington, Manassas Park, Manassas City and Falls Church — carrying 350 students in grades nine through 11.

The students, participants in Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP), had boarded their buses as early as 7:30 a.m. to attend EIP’s first conference called “Dare 2 Lead.”

A partnership with area schools, EIP works with students nominated by their schools because of their potential to become the first member of their family to attend college. Beginning in eighth grade and continuing through their senior year, the students — about 600 in all — receive free weekly tutoring and mentoring in their schools throughout the academic year, as well as the opportunity to participate in special programs like Dare 2 Lead.

In the summer, the high schoolers spend three weeks at Mason in an intensive academic enrichment program to help them succeed in challenging subjects while in high school and begin to prepare for college and careers.

On this December morning, EIP executive director Lewis Forrest II, BA English ’96 and MEd Counseling and Development ’05, stood near the entrance to the Johnson Center Cinema as the students filed in. He high-fived or shook hands with many of them and greeted them by name.

Mason students affiliated with EIP received scholarships provided through corporate donors and were honored at a reception last fall. Among them, from left, were senior Gabby Alfaro, sophomore Evelyn Sigala and junior Jennifer Roque, EIP graduates; sophomore Obaidullah Faiq, a Student Transition and Empowerment Program participant and EIP mentor; and senior Natasha Henry and freshman Keyanna Lee, EIP graduates. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Once the students were seated, Forrest scanned the packed room and got their attention. “This is the first time we’re having this conference, Dare 2 Lead, and you’re part of making history,” he announced to loud applause. “You’re already leaders in your schools, but we’re going to build on what you already have,” he added.

With sessions on ethical decision making, values, effective communication, building a positive self-image, social media and other topics, the conference aimed to inspire the students and give them tools to become successful leaders and, eventually, college students.

A Community Partnership

In 2012, EIP celebrates its 25th anniversary and its more than 1,000 graduates. On average, 95 percent of each year’s graduates enroll in college, and about a third of them enroll at Mason.

Late last year, the program received a $100,000 grant from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation. While supported by the public school systems and Mason, EIP relies on corporate and charitable gifts to help fund the summer academies, math and science enrichment workshops and other events.

“It really is a partnership,” Forrest explains. “It works nicely that way. Since EIP has been around for so long, companies and individuals are more confident in contributing to something they know has a pretty long track record. They can invest in something that they know works, and it’s not going anywhere.”

An annual golf tournament fundraiser also provides financial assistance once the students enroll at Mason. “Having all those people invested in our students — it’s meant a lot to some students who just needed that extra little bit,” Forrest says.

Alumni Involvement

The involvement and support of its alumni have also contributed to EIP’s success.

Take Laydy Reyes, for example. She graduated from EIP and Annandale High School in 2004. She then won a scholarship and enrolled in Mason, earning a degree in global affairs with a minor in business in less than four years.

Looking back on her time in EIP, she says, “The staff made a great effort to get to know us by name and tried to make a connection to us. The mentorship makes a big difference — you feel that they are looking out for you.”

Lewis Forrest II, director of the EIP program. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Because of the close ties she had developed and maintained with the EIP office, Reyes approached the former EIP director Hortensia Cadenas about volunteering in the office after she graduated from Mason. Instead, Cadenas offered her a job. Gradually, Reyes took on more responsibilities and served as the EIP office manager for three years. She recently was hired as program coordinator. Now she mentors students, works with parents and manages program logistics. She also plans to begin Mason’s master’s program in global affairs this year.

Other EIP alumni have served as tutors, mentors and workshop leaders. Juan Pacheco, BSN ’06, who now works with the youth gang prevention organization Barrios Unidos, was on hand at Dare 2 Lead to help out.

“Juan has poured his heart and soul into EIP,” says Forrest, who has known Pacheco since 1999. The EIP grad turned his life around after being a gang member as a teenager and is determined to help keep others on the right track. “The students really respect him,” says Forrest.

Having such role models is a major plus for the program, and frequently visiting a college campus also helps students see themselves as college material.

“The students really enjoy being here,” Forrest says. “The majority of them, they’re very polite, they’re very well-behaved — we don’t really have a lot of motivational issues. They are part of a select group. I try to remind them of that as often as I can.”