Mason Celebrates Winter Graduates

Posted: December 17, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: January 1, 2014 at 12:52 pm

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Their numbers may be smaller than those of the spring 2013 graduating class, but the accomplishments of George Mason University’s Winter Graduation degree recipients are no less outstanding.

The graduation ceremony takes place on Thursday, Dec. 19, at 1 p.m. in the Patriot Center. American-Israeli businesswoman Shari Arison is the graduation speaker.

George Mason’s graduation program holds the names of 3,934 Patriots who are graduating this winter, about 100 more than last winter. Of that number, 2,388 are receiving a bachelor’s degree; 1,395 a master’s or law degree; and 151 are receiving doctoral degrees.

Among the names are those of the youngest, Catherine Ray, age 16, and the oldest, Marian Powell, age 78. Following are the stories of their academic journeys. 

Youngest Grad Searches for Intellectual Challenges

By Preston Williams

Catherine Ray. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Catherine Ray. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Sixteen-year-old Catherine Ray, Mason’s youngest graduate this winter, has always relished a challenge. From a very young age, the computational and data sciences major demonstrated a love for puzzle solving by untangling her mother’s cluster of knotted necklaces and helping reconstruct broken furniture in her father’s antique shop.

She enjoys taking difficult situations and reframing them into learning experiences. For example, to make a ride less unpleasant on a packed bus, she on one occasion continually contorted her body to try to brush against the fewest number of fellow riders as possible. It was so fun she was sorry when the ride ended. Make work play, she says.

Ray’s passion for learning and boundless curiosity spans many disciplines. A friend recently introduced her by saying, “This is ‘Rin.’ She speed-reads photonics papers in German instead of sleeping.”

That urge for an accelerated path became clear in eighth grade, when Ray visited a high school she was considering attending. She ended up assisting seniors in an Advanced Placement statistics class that day. From that point, it was goodbye, high school; hello, college.

“I realized that I would have to wait four years to do something I already knew how to do,” Ray says. “I desperately, desperately desired to have a challenge of any form. Starting university at 13 seemed to be an interesting challenge.”

Before attending Mason, Ray enrolled at Mary Baldwin College, an all-women’s school in Staunton, Va., three hours from her Alexandria home. While there, the artist and writer discovered her passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects almost by accident when she accompanied a friend to a summer calculus class.

“I opened the book and I didn’t immediately know what was going on,” Ray says. “It was the first time that had happened to me.”

Soon hooked, after a year of overloading her schedule with advanced math courses, she ran out of math classes to take at Mary Baldwin without commuting — at 14, she had no driver’s license, of course. She transferred to Mason to further her multidisciplinary interests in what she dubs “compu-mathema-physics.”

Ray’s two years in Fairfax developed and deepened her love for research in STEM.

“I found that math and science are toolkits, not the rote and useless subjects my previous schooling experience had led me to believe,” she says. “I find that using my passion for STEM to solve problems and help people feels more creative and satisfying than writing stories or painting.”

Two days after graduation, six weeks shy of her 17th birthday, Ray will head off to San Francisco for a gap year of research, devoting time to two of her pet projects: a robotic wheelchair that both serves and empowers its users, and a keychain-sized food scanner that detects gluten. She also is applying for a Thiel Fellowship, a prestigious program that selects 20 students under 20 years old to pursue research projects.

Just as her parents did, Mason rewarded Ray’s curious nature and her relentless pursuit of knowledge. Being a young teen instead of a young adult was not a factor.

“If I don’t treat my age like it’s a big deal, then other people don’t treat my age like it’s a big deal,” she says. “Age doesn’t matter if you make time for what you love and earn people’s respect by working hard.

“The professors here are more than happy to talk with you, to brainstorm with you. They are so excited to have students who are actually paying attention and actually care about studying and not just looking for a good grade. They will make time for you.”

Mason’s Most Senior Grad Wants to Help Others Age in Place

By Catherine Probst

Marian Powell

Marian Powell. Photo courtesy of Marian Powell

Growing up in the small neighborhood of Bloomfield, N.J., in the 1940s, Marian Powell wasn’t thinking about college. But times have changed. Now, at 78 years old, Powell is Mason’s oldest graduate this winter and will receive her Bachelor of Individualized Study degree this month.

As part of Powell’s degree, which focuses on both psychology and social work, she was required to choose a research topic. The topic she chose — psychological and societal aspects of aging in place — explores the idea of older adults having a choice in their care and living arrangements. In recent years, purposeful aging in place has grown in popularity, especially in Fairfax County, Va., and is celebrated by the county’s Long Term Care Coordinating Council.

Specifically, Powell looked into programs available in Fairfax County that address the future needs of older individuals and ensure that necessary services are in place when they are needed. After meeting with several representatives from the county, Powell learned about the grassroots movement called the Village concept, in which neighbors are helping neighbors.

“It’s a topic that has become more relevant to my own life as my husband and I get older and have the desire to stay in our home and care for ourselves,” says Powell. “In addition, the combination of these two disciplines helped me better understand the motivations and thought process behind people’s behaviors and the ways in which they choose to live their lives.”

The Village concept, she explains, includes organizers who are typically age 60 and older and create volunteer programs for seniors in their communities as well as vet and negotiate with service providers to assist older adults in their homes. “It’s a great way for people to look out for one another and provide support for adults who choose to age in place.”

Powell’s life experiences led her to pursue the degree she is now earning. After completing high school, she followed in the footsteps of most of the women she knew. She secured a position in the bookkeeping department of a local bank. Then, after she got married, she became a stay-at-home mom to her daughter, Sandy, and her son, Jeff.

In 1965, Powell and her family moved to Northern Virginia and settled in Annandale. Later, she worked as a secretary at Dulin United Methodist Church in Falls Church and began volunteering with Meals on Wheels. It was her interactions with a variety of individuals throughout the next 30 years that cemented her desire to pursue a degree combining psychology and social work.

“From working with dozens of people at the church to delivering meals to senior citizens, there have been so many people who have come in and out of my life. I have always been fascinated by their behaviors and actions,” says Powell. “This curiosity was the driving force behind my decision to enroll at Mason. I wanted to find out more about what motivates people to act the way they do, as well as what factors influence these behaviors.”

She found herself at Northern Virginia Community College a year after retiring in 2001. She received her associate’s degree, and then enrolled at George Mason part-time in 2007.

“I was never treated any differently than all of the other students, and I have had the opportunity to meet some very interesting people of all ages and backgrounds. And I had a lot of fun too,” says Powell.

After she graduates, Powell plans to continue her volunteer work with Meals on Wheels and hopes to contribute her knowledge to the county’s Village concept — she has already been asked to share her research project with a neighboring civic association.

“I’ve been on an exciting journey these past 10 years, and I’m a bit sad to see it end,” she says. “But now I’m in a better position to provide perspective and help people live the lives they want and to make more informed decisions.”

Write to Robin Herron at rherron@gmu.edu

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