By Sudha Kamath
On George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus, many people might mistake Ray Niederhausen for a coach.
The 36-year-old, who cuts an imposing figure at 6 feet 4 inches tall and nearly 250 pounds, is actually a junior majoring in history and is pursuing a minor in sport and American culture. He plays offensive and defensive tackle on George Mason’s Club Football team, too.
With the support of his wife and their three children, he’s determined to show that you can pursue your dreams at any age, and succeed.
“My family supports me in all I do, especially with full-time school and club football, and I wanted them to see that they’re appreciated,” he says.
That unity and support is what led Niederhausen to nominate his family for Mason’s Alan and Sally Merten Family of the Year Award. “Just because we are nearly old enough to be some of the newer students’ parents does not mean that we still can’t show out for the school,” he wrote in the essay he submitted to enter the contest.
The selection committee agreed and chose the Niederhausens for the award offered by the Division of University Life’s Orientation and Family Programs and Services. They’ll be honored at the Mason Family Welcome Dinner on Oct. 17, as part of Family Weekend 2014.
Right Time, Right Place
A Peachtree, Ga., native, Niederhausen first attended college in 1995 in Clinton, S.C. It didn’t work out. Despite a football scholarship, he left after one year.
“School was not a priority in my mind,” he recalls. “So in a nutshell, I was emotionally unprepared to take on a full-time workload and athletic endeavors.”
In 2008, Niederhausen enrolled in another university and earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts. The following year, the Niederhausens moved to Arlington, Va., and Ray decided to choose a new path, different from his 18-year career in the restaurant industry.
“I decided Mason would be the best opportunity for my family and me,” he explains.
He admits that it was Mason’s convenient location that initially won him over. But once on campus, Niederhausen felt the pull of the Mason community. “It’s only through coming here and participating in campus activities that I garnered pride and love for the school.”
Now, Niederhausen is juggling courses, marriage and fatherhood, not to mention club football. “Family is a full-time job, and I am also the stay-at-home dad all the other times of the year,” says the father of 9-year-old twins Tyler and Nathan, and one-and-a-half-year old Ian.
Individual Interests, Family Unity
Niederhausen’s essay especially caught the eye of Ben Palmer, the student who works in Orientation and Family Programs and Services who organized the selection process for the Family of the Year Award.
“What stood out most was his ability to articulate his family’s support,” says Palmer. “Everyone knows there are plenty of adult learners at Mason, but for one of them to be involved in a club sport and have such incredible support from his wife and three sons is outstanding,” he adds.
“It’s extremely important for each individual to have their own goals and endeavors,” says Niederhausen’s wife, Jennifer. “Whether it’s work, school, football, baseball, karate or playing in the sandbox in the case of the toddler, we all find a way to support the activity and the family member 100 percent. It feels overwhelming most of the time, but the crazy is worth it.”
Looking Toward the Future
Niederhausen admits he has no idea where his degree will take him, but says he’d like to work for a museum or historical society. He already has a jumpstart. Mason’s location has given Niederhausen multiple opportunities for experiential learning. He’s currently volunteering at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and interning at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He found out about that internship through Mason’s Department of History and Art History in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Any future Patriots among his three sons? “My kids have the freedom to attend any school they wish to, but I would lean towards Mason, especially if I have to pay for it,” Niederhausen quips.
“We are a simple family with a simple goal: to show our children that no matter how old you get, you can still follow your dreams.”