Mason’s Distinguished Alumni Recognized

Posted: April 26, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: April 25, 2010 at 7:25 pm

By Colleen Kearney Rich and Devon Madison

Each spring, the George Mason University Alumni Association honors outstanding alumni, students and faculty members for their achievements and contributions to the university and the community at its annual Celebration of Distinction.

The 2010 banquet took place on April 14.

In addition to each school and college recognizing an alumnus, the association also honored associate professor of psychology Todd Kashdan, the Faculty Member of the Year, and Mason student body president Devraj Dasgupta, the Senior of the Year.

Following are profiles of the Alumna of the Year and the Alumni Service Award winner. A full listing of awardees is available online.

Debbie Hersman, Alumna of the Year

Debbie Hersman. NTSB photo

Debbie Hersman, MS Conflict Analysis and Resolution ’00, has spent her career in public service. After graduating from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international studies, she went to work on Capitol Hill for Rep. Bob Wise of West Virginia, serving as both his staff director and senior legislative aide.

When she was ready to pursue a master’s degree, she shopped around. Many of her Hill colleagues were working on law degrees, but Hersman wanted to do something different.

“I didn’t want it to be an adversarial degree,” she says. “I wanted something where I could solve problems.”

She found what she was looking for at Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and she says she uses what she learned at Mason every day.

As the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Hersman oversees a 400-person independent agency whose mission is to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable causes and issue recommendations to prevent further accidents.

Appointed to the position by President Barack Obama, Hersman was sworn in on July 28, 2009, as the board’s 12th chair. A board member since 2004, Hersman has represented the NTSB at the scene of 17 transportation accidents during her tenure.

“We all have challenges in our lives. Whether it is interpersonal or on the job, you have to listen to people. That’s probably the biggest lesson I took away,” she says of her graduate work. “And it is most important when you are trying to figure out how to incorporate everyone’s needs into a solution, something that comes into play in my current role at the NTSB.”

The NTSB “is busiest and in demand when tragedies happen, but I don’t know that everyone fully appreciates how much safer our transportation system is today,” she says.

Since the NTSB was created 40 years ago, the agency has issued more than 13,000 recommendations, 80 percent of which have been adopted by the transportation community.

“It is through these recommendations that we are able to make transportation safer,” she says.

“Public service is incredibly rewarding,” she says. “I feel very humbled to have the opportunity to be in this position and work with such a talented and committed group of individuals. The past five years at the board have been a privilege.”

John Niehoff, Alumni Service Award

John Niehoff. Photo courtesy of John Niehoff

John Niehoff, BS Accounting ’84, has a penchant for business and passion for basketball. He also has a special talent for giving back to the alma mater he holds responsible for his success.

Niehoff, who played basketball at Mason from 1980 to 1984, received a full scholarship after his first semester. Currently a partner at accounting and consulting firm Baker Tilly (formerly Beers + Cutler), he is grateful for the education he received at Mason — in the classroom and on the court.

“I benefited greatly when I went to Mason,” he says. “The combination of my academic education and what I learned from sports helped me a great deal professionally.”

Such gratitude was what led Niehoff to forge a strong relationship between his employer of more than 20 years and Mason’s School of Management (SOM). By serving as recruiting coordinator for Mason, Niehoff over the years has helped about 75 SOM students obtain either an internship or employment with his company.

He also was a contributing partner when James Beers offered a $125,000 scholarship endowment that was matched by the firm’s partners, bringing Mason the largest scholarship endowment in its history totaling $250,000.

Niehoff also has served on the Accounting Advisory Council, Accounting Patrons and most recently the SOM Dean’s Advisory Board.

The former point guard was honored in 2008 as a George Mason University Basketball Legend. He is a Patriot Club member and a season ticket holder. It seems his love for both basketball and Mason are infectious — his oldest son, Taylor, is a sophomore at the university. When asked if his son was pressured to attend Mason, Niehoff responds, “He went of his own volition, but I suspect he was brainwashed by the fun of the Final Four experience!”

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