George Mason University

News at Mason

Making sure her voice is heard

January 5, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Sophomore Madison Essig is the first Mason LIFE student to hold a Student Senate seat. "I want to make sure people with disabilities have a voice," she said. Photo by Brittany Camp.

Madison Essig said she wasn’t worried about whether or not she would be approved as a member of George Mason University’s Student Senate.

As Mason LIFE’s liaison to the Senate for the past year and a half, the sophomore had established herself as a valuable member, one who never missed a meeting and always raised a hand to volunteer.

Still, when Senate members on Dec. 7 voted 25-0 (with four abstentions) to confirm Essig, she couldn’t help but smile.

“I want to make sure people with disabilities have a voice,” she said. “But I also want to make certain we all have a voice.”

Essig, who has Down syndrome, is persistent that way. She even helped push the Senate to amend its constitution to allow students such as her to be part of the student-led body.

Previously, only students with a GPA had that privilege, said Caiti Lively, speaker of the Student Senate. But a change through what became known as “Madison’s Bill” opened the Senate to students, such as those in Mason LIFE and those in the INTO program, who are earning certificates instead of degrees.

Usually, students are voted into the Senate through a university-wide election. But because some Senate seats are vacant, Essig will begin her term in January. To keep her seat for the 2018-19 school year she will have to campaign like everyone else.

“She’s driven to make a difference, not just for those with Down syndrome but those with disabilities in general,” said Heidi Graff, Mason LIFE’s program director in the Division of Special Education and disAbility Research. “She’s able to persist until she makes her goal. She’s pretty amazing.”

Essig graduated from high school with a 3.7 GPA and is believed to be among the first Down syndrome students to graduate from a Washington, D.C., secondary school with a standard diploma, since the District began keeping digital records in 1996.

Though enrolled in the Mason LIFE program, which provides a supportive academic environment for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Essig has taken university catalog courses the past two semesters in American government, forensic science and communication. Those courses were not for credit but to build her transcript toward her certificate.

Her career ambition is to advocate for those with disabilities.

“Some people don’t really know that we’re here, that there is a program here,” she said of Mason LIFE. “That’s one thing I want to change, that people know that we’re here getting the same education as everyone else. Everyone wants to be heard in the same way, so let’s do that.”

Her time on the Senate has helped.

“A lot of us had not had much interaction with Mason LIFE students, so she brought that aspect to all our lives,” Lively said. “She’s always there, she’s always working for us.”

“We like to think she’s the kind of leader that George Mason would like to have on campus,” said Essig’s mom, Kimberly Templeton, “somebody not only able to do the work academically but contribute and help bring people together and leave the campus better than when she started.”