May102010

Degree in Hand, Mason Graduates Seek New Paths

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With Mason’s 43rd Commencement ceremony about to occur on May 15, this time of year is definitely the happiest for the nearly 8,000 Mason students who will collect a diploma.

Filled with a sense of accomplishment, some are headed off to new jobs, some are continuing their education, some are resuming their careers with enhanced skills and others are still searching for the next step.

Following are a few of their stories.

After Harrowing 9/11 Experience, Adam Behrens Follows His Dream

By Beth Johnson

Adam Behrens. Photo courtesy of Adam Behrens

Growing up in a small town in northern Michigan, Adam Behrens dreamt of new experiences.

Within months of graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Army. After boot camp, he was assigned to the “Old Guard,” the Army’s elite honor guard and presidential escort unit at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va.

Little did he know, this duty assignment would forever change his life. On Sept. 11, 2001, Behrens’ unit was among the first called to the Pentagon after the plane hit.

“We went into the Pentagon while it was still on fire, to assist with rescue and recovery efforts,” says Behrens. “Many of us were wading up to our hips in jet fuel, chemicals, asbestos, etc. It was unlike anything I could’ve imagined.”

Behrens’ unit spent three weeks assisting with search and rescue, top secret documentation recovery and clean up. It was also during this time that Behrens met his future wife, Ashley, who was working for a federal law enforcement agency on site.

As his contract with the Army came to a close, he decided it was time to take advantage of his GI Bill benefits and follow his dream of completing an engineering degree.

He chose Mason because of its proximity to Washington, D.C., and was awarded the 9/11 Scholarship, which helped him afford to go to school full time.

During his time at Mason, he was a founding member of the Mason Civil Engineering Honor Society and maintained an internship position with the Army Corps of Engineers.

After graduation, Behrens will begin a position with the federal government as a project engineer. He hopes to return to Mason to pursue a master’s degree.

“My career goals are to learn as much as possible in this field and to one day own or manage an engineering/construction corporation,” says Behrens.

“America’s greatness stems from its complex and amazing infrastructure, and I long for the day when I can significantly contribute to those aspects of our country’s greatness and wealth.”

Next Step for Erica Porter: Fulbright Scholarship in Paris

By Corey Jenkins Schaut

Erica Porter. Creative Services photo

When Erica Porter was in the second grade, her teacher asked the class to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up.

It was an easy question for Porter to answer: She wanted to help sick people. She may not have had the words as a child, but Porter knew she wanted to be a physician-scientist, studying diseases and their potential cures.

Not long before the assignment, Porter’s mother had moved the two of them to Bedford, Va. Porter’s aunt had just died from lung cancer, and her mother was helping to care for her cousins. The experience helped confirm Porter’s career aspirations.

“I combined my love of science with my desire to help sick people,” Porter says, speaking of her choice to major in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry at Mason, where she received scholarship support and is in the Honors College.

Porter’s early years translated into a successful academic career that will culminate with graduation this week and her next step — heading to Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship. She will study tuberculosis at the Institut Pasteur beginning in October.

“When I think about conducting research with one of the world’s leading scientists in the field, I can’t help but get excited,” Porter enthuses. “It’s an experience I never imagined for myself.”

She is well prepared to take on such high-level research. For the past two years, Porter has participated in an undergraduate research apprenticeship in molecular microbiology and biochemistry through the College of Science’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases. Her research has focused on the biochemistry of the bacteria Francisella tularensis.

In addition to her research at Mason, Porter has attended the Harvard Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Program and the Amgen Scholars Program in Undergraduate Research at the University of Washington.

When she returns from France, Porter plans to enroll in an MD-PhD program.

WrongPlanet.net Founder Alexander Plank Sets His Sights on Filmmaking

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Alexander Plank. Photo by Evan Cantwell

When Alexander Plank came to Mason, he planned to study computer science. For the mastermind behind the web site WrongPlanet.net, that major was a logical choice.

Then Plank discovered the university’s new program in film and video studies, and a filmmaker was born.

Plank started WrongPlanet.net, an online community and resource for individuals and the parents of those with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other neurological differences, with a friend he met online while he was still in high school. WrongPlanet.net currently has more than 35,000 members.

In addition to running the web site, Plank is also an advocate for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as it is now becoming known. He has been a guest speaker in a variety of venues from classrooms to talk shows.

Plank has been featured on many of the major news outlets such as “Good Morning America” and “Dateline NBC.” Even Dr. Phil has talked about him on an episode.

He has been invited to speak at the Autism Society of America’s annual conference this summer.

Now Plank has added documentary filmmaking to his advocacy arsenal. During his time at Mason, the Charlottesville, Va., native has produced two documentaries about autism.

One focuses on some of the misconceptions about autism; the other, “Autism Reality,” features vignettes about people with autism.

He has also completed a third documentary, “First Precinct,” about the 2008 presidential election and voters in Virginia’s first precinct.

According to Plank, many more people have ASD than you would expect.

“A lot of people don’t want to say [they have it],” says Plank, who was diagnosed with ASD when he was 9. “So they don’t tell anyone.”

After graduation, he plans a career in the entertainment industry making films that make a difference.

Master Police Officer Ashley Morgan Finds Individualized Study Just the Ticket

By Robin Herron

Ashley Morgan. Photo by Nicolas Tan

Sometimes it just takes being in the right place at the right time.

For Ashley Morgan, one “right place-right time” was responding to a classified ad for a police officer position at Mason. Another “right-place-right time” was discovering the bachelor in individualized study (BIS) program a few years after she was employed at Mason.

Morgan, a master police officer who joined University Police in 2003, earned a BIS summa cum laude this past January and will participate in the Commencement ceremony on May 15.

“I’m very proud of it,” she says. “It took me 10 years.”

Morgan almost had a career working with children and teenagers when she attended college in Florida and studied youth education. She made her way to Northern Virginia and took a few classes here and there, finding herself with 77 credits and no degree. The undergraduate programs she considered had requirements that couldn’t be met with her accumulated credits.

After working at Mason for a few years, she discovered the BIS program, where she could apply more than half of her earned credits and concentrate on an area of deep interest for her, community policing education.

“It seemed like a perfect fit,” she says. “I went to an information session and was sold.”

Her senior capstone project was on a communication curriculum for policing, and a portion of it was published in an online policing journal, The Safe Campus.

When she walks across the stage at Commencement, Morgan’s whole family will be watching: her 90-year-old grandparents, her mother, father and stepmother, who are flying in from Florida.

Morgan is comfortable in front of a large audience, however, having sung the national anthem on many occasions as a member of Mason’s police honor guard .

EIP Graduate Roxana Cardona Gomez Seeks to Help Others

By Corey Jenkins Schaut

Roxana Cardona Gomez. Creative Services photo

It’s been a long semester for Roxana Cardona Gomez.

Five days a week, she has been making a two-hour commute via public transportation into Washington, D.C., to her year-long clinical education program at Washington Hospital Center. But such dedication and hard work seem to be part of Gomez’ nature.

The child of immigrant parents, Gomez enrolled in Mason’s Early Identification Program (EIP) as a student at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va.

During her high school years, Gomez volunteered at Prince William Hospital. While there, she observed a need for more Spanish-speaking medical professionals, which helped her decide on a career path.

She chose the medical technology program at Mason and earned the Barbara J. and B. Mark Fried Endowed Scholarship, which has helped her afford her education. She will graduate with a BS on May 15.

“[Scholarships] give a blessing to the students who benefit,” said Gomez. “It’s a gift that blooms as the years go by.”

During her time as a student, Gomez married and became a mother to a daughter, now 2. While her family takes up much of her time these days, helping fellow students has been one of her priorities.

In the past, she has spoken to minority college-bound students and their parents about her experience. She has also participated as a mentee and mentor in the Mariposas Mentoring Program, which provides support for freshmen, sophomores and newly transferred Latinas at Mason.

EIP remains important to her as well. She has served as a tutor and still attends events during the program’s summer academy. This year, Gomez’ sister also became an EIP graduate and was accepted to Mason.

Washington Hospital Center has already offered Gomez a three-year contract to work in its medical laboratory after graduation. She hopes to eventually go to medical school.

International Forensics Champion Mickey Cox Is 2010 Commencement Student Speaker

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Mickey Cox. Creative Services photo

This year’s graduate speaker for Commencement is William Michael “Mickey” Cox, one of the top competitors on Mason’s Forensics Team and an international champion.

In March, Cox traveled with the team to Berlin, Germany, where he took first place in the Dramatic Interpretation and After Dinner Speaking categories at the International Forensics Tournament. He also has a host of national championships on his resume.

Forensics is the reason Cox came to Mason — the team and coach Peter Pober. The Lafayette, La., native attended the forensic summer camps Pober directed while teaching at the University of Texas at Austin.

When Pober came to Mason in fall 2003, Cox attended the George Mason Institute in Forensics and fell in love with the university. In fact, Cox is still attending those summer institutes — now as a teacher, which ties in perfectly with Cox’s career goals.

Cox, a history major with a minor in communication, begins work on a master’s degree in communication this fall. He has aspirations of becoming a forensics coach and a professor.

“History has always been one of my biggest passions,” says Cox.

But the opportunity to be a teaching assistant in an Introduction to Communication class during his time at Mason really helped him focus his interests.

“Being on the other side [of the education process] was an awakening for me,” he says. “I really enjoyed teaching. I like watching people grasp concepts that you know they had no idea about before.”

Art and Visual Technology Grad Gwynneth VanLaven Turns Personal Experiences into Artwork

By Catherine Ferraro

Gwynneth VanLaven. Photo courtesy of Gwynneth VanLaven

In an article recently published in the Washington Post, Gwynneth VanLaven writes about the difficulty of receiving unsolicited, but well-intentioned advice from others about an accident three years ago that left her visibly disabled and requiring the use of a walking cane.

Now, as she receives her MFA in art and visual technology with a concentration in critical art practice, VanLaven has learned to use these experiences as inspiration for her artwork.

VanLaven’s work deals with issues of stigma as something that many people assign to others when confronted with issues too difficult to comfortably comprehend. Stigma, she notes, takes the real experiences of real people and flattens it into stereotypes and presumptions.

“As a firm believer in art as social action, I use my own experiences as a catalyst for my artwork and strive to encourage viewers of my work to open themselves to their own particular experience of the world,” says VanLaven.

“Through my artwork, I want to raise questions about society rather than pose answers to questions that may not have a definitive answer.”

Her most recent work was inspired by her personal experiences in and out of waiting rooms and with the health care system through visits to hospitals, doctors and clinics.

Believing that waiting rooms are intentionally programmed to be forgettable spaces, VanLaven was interested in reconstructing a waiting room and challenging the specific ways in which individuals are expected to act in them.

For her thesis project, VanLaven created a multimedia installation titled “Please Wait.” The project included a series of medical waiting and exam rooms that raised issues about the cultural conception of wellness, how we perform as patients and how spaces intended to be harmless become charged with memory and emotion.

“My goal for this project was to complicate rather than solve or simplify issues for my viewers,” says VanLaven. “I wanted to challenge the notions of what is considered normal and the presumptions we are faced with every day that may be harmful or limiting.”

VanLaven’s installation will be included in an international juried exhibition for artists with disabilities titled “Revealing Culture” opening at the Smithsonian’s International Gallery on June 8.

After graduation, VanLaven hopes to either become a teacher at a local college or university to educate students about art as social action or pursue her interest in photography. Wherever her path leads, however, she’s certain she will continue creating artwork that encourages people to question themselves and society.

Student Government President Devraj Dasgupta Adds Senior of the Year Award to His Resume

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty

Devraj Dasgupta. Creative Services photo

Devraj Dasgupta, a senior electrical engineering major and student body president, definitely can be described as a jack of all trades. But what’s even more impressive, he seems to be a master of them all.

How else can you describe a student who maintains a 3.88 GPA, has trained for hours a day as part of Mason’s track team, oversees 20 student leaders in his role as president of the Student Government and has completed multiple internships?

“As a Greek, scholar, athlete, engineer and leader, Devraj is a standard of excellence to the members of the Mason community,” says Chris Prentice, BS Electrical Engineering ’93 and president of the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering Alumni Chapter.

Dasgupta, who was recently named Senior of the Year by the George Mason University Alumni Association, is also a theater minor, which has come in handy for his many public speaking engagements, including an H1N1 Town Hall Meeting he hosted in fall 2009 with the secretaries of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education.

As a walk-on athlete on Mason’s track team, Dasgupta proved that much can be accomplished with hard work and perseverance. He made the NCAA Division I team after weeks of training despite the elite level of competition — and all of this in addition to being a part of Mason’s University Scholars Program. He has since stepped down from the track team in order to focus on his duties as student body president.

“Devraj has taken advantage of all that Mason has to offer and more,” says E. Bernard White, associate dean of the Volgenau School. “Most important, he is a well-respected engineering professional and is the first student body president from the Volgenau School.

“We are so proud of Devraj and his accomplishments.”

Dasgupta, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a top magnet school in the region, was recognized by the Mason Alumni Association at its annual Celebration of Distinction banquet in April.

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