Betzy Balladares, a senior at Patriot High School in Nokesville, Virginia, was spending her Saturday in class on George Mason University’s Fairfax Campus. She was there, she said, to learn as much as she could to prepare for college.
Balladares, who is currently deciding which university to attend, will be the first in her family to go to college. She came to the United States from Peru when she was 8.
“I want to go to a good college to encourage my little brother,” Balladares said. “I want to be a good role model.”
Balladares was participating in one of five STEM Fusion Days held every year to help empower students to excel in their math and science coursework. During a recent cold February day, about 350 middle and high school students from throughout Northern Virginia attended a variety of classes. Some of the classes helped students review topics they were learning in school or prepared them for upcoming coursework. In addition, students were able to attend classes on new topics, such as cybersecurity and video game design.
The STEM Fusion program is part of Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP), an extensive outreach effort to more than 650 first-generation college-bound students in the Northern Virginia area. Established in 1987, EIP is a multiyear college preparatory program for middle and high school students who will be the first in their families to attend college.
“STEM Fusion Days expose students to careers in STEM and provide math and science enrichment in coursework that students are currently enrolled in at their base school,” said Khaseem F. Davis, EIP’s director. “We provide math and science support from content experts who deliver the material in fun and engaging ways.”
Nawal Ali, an eighth-grade student at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, said the STEM classes “help me get prepared for school.”
In addition, she’s made friends with other students.
“They are all like me, they come for the same reason—that they believe they can do better things in life,” Ali said.
“Teaching provides me with an opportunity to give back to the same program that helped me embark on an academic journey that has resulted in my professional career as a computational scientist,” said Mason alumnus Sarom Leang, BS Chemistry ’04, who participated in the EIP Program from 1993 to 1998 and teaches a computer programming class at STEM Fusion. He is currently working for EP Analytics.
EIP participation begins in eighth grade. To participate, students are nominated by a school counselor and apply at the end of seventh grade. Students who successfully complete the program and meet Mason’s admissions requirements are guaranteed admission.
During the school year, Mason students tutor and mentor EIP participants. EIP participants also participate in an intensive three-week academic enrichment program in the summer. In addition, students from Mason’s Honors College help EIP participants in the college application process.
“The majority of our students come from groups historically underrepresented in college,” Davis said. “Mason’s EIP helps provide students with access to excellence.”
In fall 2019, the program had 223 participants enrolled from Fairfax County Public Schools, 143 from Arlington County, and 129 from Prince William Country, along with students from Alexandria City, Manassas Park, Manassas City and Falls Church City.
“It’s a little intimidating getting to college,” Balladares said. “My parents don’t know anything about the process, but I have the help of EIP, thank goodness.”