Sophomore Paula De Medeiros knew from the time she first visited the Fairfax campus in seventh grade that she wanted to attended Mason.

George Mason University/Early Identification Program

“The first time we ever went to the Fairfax [campus] it was pretty cool, because I was like, ‘Oh college students,’” De Medeiros said. “It actually made it real for me.”

For many of her peers, however, college was just a word; it carried no meaning.

The Mason Early Identification Program (EIP) not only cultivated the meaning of college for De Medeiros at a young age, but it also produced long-time friends and the support of the organization’s community.

When Lewis Forrest, Executive Director of EIP, walks into the EIP student lounge, he’s greeted with a chorus of “Hi, Mr. Lewis,” from the students whose lives have been changed because of the EIP.

“It’s an extended family,” Forrest said.

Mason EIP is a college-access program housed at Mason. EIP is designed to encourage  students from seventh grade to have the opportunity to be their family’s first generation college student. In eighth grade and high school, students go through a series of classes and seminars to give them a leg up before they enter college.

Once in college, they have the benefit of a network of support within the EIP.

“I give them the father speech when they come here: ‘I know you’re not in EIP as a high school student anymore, but as a college student, this is a place you need to stay connected because all of the resources that are available here; we can network you in to a lot of that stuff,” Forrest said.

Participation in the program spans almost five years before entering Mason as a freshman. Through those five years, students develop relationships that without the EIP would not exist. De Medeiros met a group of people in EIP in which she still retains close friendships with.

“Even though Yazmin [Dzib] went to Osbourn Park, I would have never met her if we weren’t in the program,” said De Medeiros, who grew up in Manassas and went to Osbourn High School. “So then during EIP, we were a group of friends.”

The strong relationship between the students and Mason, also motivates them to succeed. EIP alumni have created a network of students and Mason faculty that they can rely on for support.

“Any time you spend four to five years with anybody, I think some sort of a relationship is made,” Forrest said. “Especially if you all have that one thing in common: none of our parents went to college and now we’re all here. It’s a pretty cool thing to all be in that situation together and kind of root for each other’s success.”

“When you have friends and people that are going through the same thing, you motivate each other and you’re like, ‘Oh she’s doing it so I can do it,’” De Medeiros said. “So you don’t feel like, ‘Oh man, how am I going to get through this?’ You have people that you can text and be like, ‘Hey this is stressing me out,’ and they’ll be like, ’Oh no, do it like this,’ or, ‘I’ll help you.’ It’s the motivation.”

Mason has embraced the EIP as a connection to the community surrounding Mason. The EIP pulls 600 students from seven school divisions in the area. These divisions include Arlington, Prince William, Falls Church, Manassas Park, Manassas City, Alexandria and Fairfax.

“I think when folks in the communities see that for 25 years, Mason has supported a program like this to help students in their backyards get to Mason and be prepared to come to Mason, I think that’s a pretty strong statement that the Mason community has invested in the larger community whether it be Fairfax or Manassas Park or Falls Church City,” Forrest said. “I was in Falls Church City this morning and that’s one of the things that they said. It’s really good that our students have that advantage to see [Mason] and the students really get attached to Mason.”

The school divisions have embraced the EIP program and have awarded them recognition. In 2011, they received the Community Partnership Award in Arlington County. In 2010, they earned the District Partnership Award in Alexandria. Early on in the EIP’s history, they were recognized by the Department of Education and were invited to the White House as part of the High Hopes initiative.

On the other end, it’s an advantage for Mason’s admissions process as a recruiting tool.

“Even as an eighth grader, you go through the program, you’re on campus and you go back to school and you’re one of two kids in your school that spent the weekend at Mason,” Forrest said. “That’s kind of a badge of honor for some students. So they know they want to go to Mason maybe as a ninth grader.”

Many Mason EIP alumni come back to the program during their undergraduate and graduate years to work in the EIP office, work as a mentor for other EIP students

“The younger students, they’ve heard me a million times, but if I pull a student and say, come to this event and tell this group of ninth or tenth graders your story, then it resonates differently,” Forrest said.

The EIP is a cumulative effort of the faculty, such as Forrest, the students participating in the program, Mason and the local community as well as the EIP alumni such as De Medeiros and graduate student Bianca Alba.

“I was able to do the summer academy, mentoring, and was able to mentor throughout the years,” said Alba, who is currently working on a master’s degree. “That was a really great experience, so not only was I able to give back to an organization that gave me so much, but I was able to hopefully, you know, encourage a lot of the students in this program to continue to be in school and that it is a possibility. This program is a home away from home. We’re most definitely a family that you can count on.”