First-gen student is moving forward and giving back

De'Shauna Downs, a rising junior and cyber security engineering major, received the Black Scholars Endowed Scholarship from Mason's Black Alumni Chapter. Photo provided.

When De’Shauna Downs was deciding where to attend college, her decision had nothing to do with where her friends were going or what schools are near her Portsmouth, Va., home.

It was all about academics and opportunity, which is why, she said, she ended up at George Mason University.

“There are a lot of opportunities here, and they aren’t hidden,” said the rising junior, a cyber security engineering major in the Volgenau School of Engineering. “Scholarships, internships, networking, they’re all here.”

Downs, a member of Mason's Honors College, has made the most of those opportunities.

“A complete go-getter,” said Teejay Brown, an assistant director in Mason’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education. “Like the Energizer Bunny, she just goes and goes.”

Her most recent accomplishment: Receiving the $2,500 Black Scholars Endowed Scholarship from Mason’s Black Alumni Chapter, an annual award given for academic excellence (at least a 3.0 GPA is required) and being a contributing member of a student organization that promotes the advocacy and support of black and African heritage students.

The recognition is nice, said Downs, a member of Mason’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. The money is even better.

Coming from a single-parent household, and being the first in her family to attend college, Downs has taken on the financial burden of her own education, paying her way through loans, financial aid, scholarships and out of her own pocket to ensure she has experiences such as the study-abroad trip she took to Ecuador as a freshman to augment her minor in Spanish.

Downs lives on campus during the school year and works two jobs for a combined 35-40 hours a week to help make it all work.

“From where I came and from where I grew up, I knew it could be so much better,” she said. “I have big dreams. I always did well in school, so the opportunities were always there. It was just a matter of keep pushing, reaching out.”

By reaching out, Downs also hopes to give back.

She said that once she gets a career going, she will help her mom better her circumstances. And by being committed to her academics and work ethic, Downs is setting an example for her 7-year-old sister, Bria.

“I’m going to be her mentor, and she already knows that,” Downs said. “I bought her a George Mason shirt so that she can brag to her friends back in first grade.”

Downs said she even visits her old high school to speak with students about “how I did it.”

“This tells me that she has integrity,” said Mason alumna Chantee Christian, BA Communication ’05, and president of the university’s Black Alumni Chapter. “It tells me she has the ability to be selfless and the ability to understand what we need in our black community from a perspective of having mentors and people to look up to. Sometimes it happens in our own household.”

”My mom made so many sacrifices for me,” Downs said. “What I’d do for her wouldn’t make up for that, but it’s a start.”