George Mason University

News at Mason

Persistence pays off for first-generation student

May 8, 2019   /   by Keirsten Robinson

Karen Arandia

Karen Arandia. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Strategic Communications

Karen Arandia has been working on her degree since 2006 when she started at Northern Virginia Community College, and the senior information systems and operations management major is on track to graduate from George Mason University in May.

She persisted during those 13 years, despite having to temporarily suspend her studies in 2010 after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, because graduation was the goal for the first-generation college student. After multiple surgeries, she’s now in remission, and finishing her degree while being a mom to her 2-year-old son, Jamison.

“I got sick and struggled, but it put things into perspective and made me realize I still wanted to pursue that goal,” Arandia, 33, said. “I would be the first one in my immediate family to get a college degree. I think education is important and now that I have a son, I do want to set a bar so that he can surpass it.”

Arandia began her schooling part time while working full time as a business tax specialist for Arlington County. After working for Arlington County for almost nine years and successfully tackling cancer, Arandia attended college full time to finish her degree.

Mason faculty encouraged her to apply for a GOV Services Inc. scholarship, which she was awarded because of her status as a first-generation student and because of her mother’s many years of janitorial work. Her mom’s sudden death forced Arandia to postpone her studies and what she had hoped would be a December 2018 graduation.

Arandia transferred to Mason through the Virginia Guaranteed Admissions Agreement, and has enjoyed her time at the university.

“The professors have been great, they bring their professional experience into the classroom,” she said.

Arandia said she believes she is able to relate with her professors and what they are teaching because of her many years as a working professional.

Arandia said that her accounting professor, Constance Hylton, had one of the biggest impacts on her collegiate career because of her confidence and the confidence she shows in others. Hylton said Arandia’s dedication as a student was unmistakable.

“She sat in the front row, even though she was not an accounting major,” Hylton said “She always asked probing questions. Karen showed that through hard work you can have success even in courses that many non-accounting majors considered to be difficult.”

After graduation, Arandia plans to apply the knowledge and skills from her degree program to a career in information systems.

She also plans to publish a children's book about cancer.

When she graduates on May 17, Arandia said she will look back on her journey and celebrate. Her diagnosis was the not the end of her Mason journey, it was only a brief pause.

“It was important to me to not let the obstacles and challenges get in my way,” Arandia said. “Instead I set out to finish what I have wanted for so long. Having cancer and surviving cancer has given me many new life perspectives, but I learned don’t stop, don’t give up, enjoy every moment, and enjoy the journey.”

Topics: Graduation