Dream-Catchers Program Boosts Potential College Students

Posted: October 26, 2009 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: January 25, 2010 at 3:30 pm

By Jennifer Edgerly

x and y. Photo by Nicolas Tan

Student Mohamed Hashi, left, and Padmanabhan (Padhu) Seshaiyer, associate professor of mathematical sciences, are partnered in Mason's Dream-Catchers Program. Photo by Nicolas Tan

Originally from Somalia, Mohamed Hashi has witnessed things that would be difficult for many to digest. However, he hasn’t let his past hold him back. A student at Northern Virginia Community College, he holds down a full-time job and dreams of transferring to George Mason University to study math or biology.

Hashi credits Mason’s Dream-Catchers Mentoring Program with helping him get to where he is today.

“If I had not participated in the Dream-Catchers program I would not have thought about attending college,” says Hashi. “Dream-Catchers has encouraged me to believe in myself, and through the program I am making progress toward pursuing higher education.”

Dream-Catchers is a partnership between Mason and the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) Alternative Education programs. The program identifies students at Fairfax’s three alternative high schools (Bryant, Mountain View and Pimmit) who, despite challenging personal circumstances, have shown the academic potential to successfully graduate from an undergraduate program.

While the majority of students who participate in Dream-Catchers pursue an education at a four-year university, occasionally they begin at Northern Virginia Community College before transferring to Mason or another university in the state.

Hashi is one of more than 75 FCPS students who have participated in the Dream-Catchers program since it began in 2000. The program is the brainchild of Mason Provost Peter Stearns, and its goal is to provide an opportunity for capable students to overcome the many challenges they face in obtaining an education.

“Most of these students come from families where no one has been to college, and often it isn’t in their sights or dreams to go to college,” says Jane Razeghi, associate professor of education in Mason’s Graduate School of Education and coordinator of the Dream-Catchers program at Mason.

Padhu. Photo by Nicolas Tan

Seshaiyer tries to bring Hashi, who is attending Northern Virginia Community College, to the Fairfax Campus frequently. Photo by Nicolas Tan

“Their teachers, principals and counselors see that they have the academic and often leadership potential to benefit from this program. These students have been able to turn their lives around and need help, direction and encouragement, and that’s what Dream-Catchers provides.”

Selected students are nominated by a Dream-Catchers liaison at the alternative high school and are partnered with a Mason faculty or staff member who volunteers to be a mentor to the student in their junior or senior years of high school through the completion of a university program.

“When I first met Mohamed in spring 2008 he was very shy, but over time our relationship has transformed,” says Padmanabhan (Padhu) Seshaiyer, associate professor of mathematical sciences and Hashi’s mentor.

“Although we spend time together outside the classroom, I try to bring Mohamed to campus as much as possible. I think it helps him stay focused and driven when he sees all the activity on campus. It reminds him what he’s working toward.”

Razeghi notes that the response from faculty and staff to volunteer is often overwhelming. However, it is not always possible to find a student match for each volunteer.

“Because the mentors are often on the Fairfax Campus and the students are off-campus attending the alternative high schools, such factors as time and location in traveling to meet become important issues,” says Razeghi. “We also try to match mentors with students based on academic need or other shared hobbies or interests.”

Hashi and Seshaiyer have formed a stronger bond because Seshaiyer is able to help Hashi understand complex math theories and help with his math homework.

“Mohamed is someone with very high hopes, but he knew attaining a college degree would require a lot of hard work. He just needed the right guidance,” says Seshaiyer.

“He knows his path and exactly what to do, and that is something of which I am definitely proud. The Dream-Catchers program is fantastic with helping students overcome their fears and giving them the chance to realize that their dreams can come true.”

Hashi also has kind words for his mentor.

“I really liked Padhu the first day I met him because it was as if we had known each other for a long time,” says Hashi. “Having a mentor like Padhu is like having a teacher and a big brother in one. Both Padhu and the Dream-Catchers program have helped me believe in myself and my goal of attending George Mason University.”

Along with the support of Mason faculty and staff, Razeghi notes the tireless work of the Dream-Catchers liaisons at the high schools as well as the generous support of Apple Federal Credit Union Education Foundation in making the program a success. The foundation tries to award each student $1,000-$2,000 in scholarship money to help them get started in their quest for higher education. Since 2000, the foundation has awarded about $6,000 per year for student scholarships.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu