A Community of Excellence: The University Scholars Program
In 2010, Dr. Anthony Hoefer, the then-new Director of George Mason University’s University Scholars Program, remarked that he wanted the program to “offer a chance [for students] to develop a rich intellectual life, in which research, learning and inquiry are deeply connected to citizenship and community.”  Since the late 1980s, the University Scholars Program has brought the best students from across Virginia, and later from across the country, to George Mason University.  Over time, the University Scholars Program has evolved to bring a more diverse group of learners to Mason. Today, the University Scholars Program showcases some of the highest achieving students in its history.
The Mason Scholars Program began in 1987 as an initiative by the university and President George W. Johnson with the intention of bringing bright young intellectuals to Mason, while promoting the school’s image as a “great university with a student body second to none.” In the original program ten Virginia high school students, one from each congressional district, were chosen each year as University Scholars. The admission decision was based on a combination of their school activities record, essay score, letters of recommendation, standardized test scores, class rank, awards, academic record, AP credits, and finally, an interview. The Admissions Office at the university would review an applicant’s entire file before either recommending them for an interview or declining their application. Applicants who passed this first admissions phase were then interviewed by a special committee organized by the university from among the most influential educators and public figures in each Congressional District. The first interview committees included prominent lawyers, politicians and local community college presidents. Students accepted to George Mason University as Mason Scholars were given a four-year scholarship which covered the cost of “tuition, fees, books and basic living expenses – an estimated $40,000 over a four-year period.” The process of recruiting the first Mason Scholars class began in the fall of 1987 and continued through the Spring of 1988.
The first group of Mason Scholars entered the university during the fall semester of 1988. This elite group came from as far away as Blacksburg, Virginia and as near as Fairfax.  The class had an average SAT score of 1312 and an average GPA of 3.9. One special perk of being part of the Mason Scholars was access to a special study lounge and computer center, located on the first floor of the East Building. The lounge still remains there today (although it was moved to Krug Hall for at least one semester). The position of “Director of the Mason Scholars Program” was created to provide faculty assistance to Mason Scholars on-campus. The first Mason Scholars Director created a program that matched each scholar with a faculty member, who functioned as a mentor.
Throughout the first decade of its existence, the Mason Scholars Program expanded to provide more opportunities for its students and more options for applicants to George Mason University. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the university arranged for Mason Scholars to partake in an internship program on Capitol Hill (with the member of Congress from each Mason Scholar’s Congressional District).  In the mid-1990s the internship was restructured to allow freshman scholars to intern on Capitol Hill and sophomore scholars to intern with university administrators.  Another popular scholars activity in the mid-1990s was a sophomore and freshman retreat to Cold Stream Lodge in West Virginia, which was owned by a member of the Mason Scholar Selection Committee and given as a “weekend gift” to the scholars.  In 1990, Mason partnered with the Medical College of Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University to offer pre-med Mason Scholars guaranteed admission to medical school (contingent upon the scholars completing their undergraduate degree).  Years later, a similar program was created for pre-law University Scholars who wanted to attend George Mason Law School.  In 1991 the University admitted the first members of the Presidential Scholars Program. The Presidential Scholars comprised both in-state and out-of-state students who were offered partial scholarships to attend Mason.  Except for the monetary value of the scholarships, the Mason Scholars and the Presidential Scholars enjoyed the same benefits.
Various incarnations of a “Presidential Scholars”-type program had existed at Mason since the late 1970s, although the version introduced in 1991 was more formalized to complement the Mason Scholars.  One of the few events specific to only one University Scholars group was the Mason Scholar Weekend, when interview “committee members would come from the different congressional districts of the Commonwealth to view the campus and converse with [the Mason Scholars].” The two groups were placed under one administrative unit called the “University Scholars Program,” and the Mason Scholars Director became the Director of the University Scholars Program. All of the scholars lived together in a residence hall usually reserved for upperclassmen during their freshman year, a tradition that started with the Mason Scholars Program. 
Five years after the original Mason Scholars class was selected it became clear to university Administrators that there were some issues concerning the admissions process that needed attention. In a June 1992 memo to President Johnson, the Dean for Undergraduate Studies conveyed his belief that the Congressional District Interview Committees, which had the final say in selecting a Mason Scholar from their districts, were not selecting the best candidates for admission, thus producing one Mason Scholars group which faced serious academic problems.  The dean suggested strengthening the university’s control over both the membership of the committees and the selection of scholars. In 1997, under the new administration of D. Alan Merten, the Mason and Presidential Scholars merged into a single group called the University Scholars.  The Congressional District Interview Committees were disbanded to eliminate politicizing the process and an in-house selection process utilizing a faculty committee was put in place.  In 1998, the Scholars Program was moved from under the leadership of the Provost to New Century College. 
The University Scholars Program would not undergo another major structural change until 2009, when it was placed into the newly formed Honors College. The University Scholars Program has had several directors during its existence. Assistant Provost Madelaine Marquez was the first Director of the Mason Scholars, and served in that position from the program’s inception until mid-1989.  Donna Bafundo, a former director of the EXCEL Program (Experience College Education and Living, an on-campus college program for rising high school seniors), was assigned the role of Mason Scholars Director after Marquez’s departure.  Her title was changed to “Director of the University Scholars Program” after the Presidential Scholars were introduced in 1991. Bafundo served as Director of the program for just over ten years, until her retirement in 2000.  During Bafundo’s tenure, Deborah Hobson became the first and last Assistant Director of the University Scholars Program, serving from 1998 to 1999.  In mid-1999 Bafundo assisted Dr. John O’Connor, then Dean of New Century College, in selecting a replacement Scholars Director.  Dr. Noreen McGuire was appointed Director of the University Scholars in 2000 and served until 2002.  In 2005, the University Scholars Lounge in the East Building was renamed the “Dr. Noreen McGuire Prettyman University Scholars Lounge” in recognition of Dr. McGuire’s contributions to the university and the Scholars Program. 
After Dr. McGuire’s departure in 2002, Dr. Peggy Chalker and Virginia Ann Lewis were asked to lead the University Scholars Program, but neither was named Director of the program.  A short time later, Dr. Chalker left the university and Lewis served as the interim University Scholars Director for two years.  While serving as de-facto Acting Director, Ms. Lewis strove to improve communication between the Scholars Program and the families of Scholars. Under her leadership, out-of-state enrollment in the program rose and eventually constituted one third of all University Scholars. In 2004, Dr. Erek Perry came to Mason from Ohio University to become the new University Scholars Director and Associate Director of Student Academic Affairs.  Perry continued as Director of the program until 2009. In 2010, Dr. Anthony Hoefer, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, was chosen as the new Director of the University Scholars Program.
The University Scholars Program continues to be one of the most prestigious opportunities available to matriculants to George Mason University. In 2012, retiring university President Dr. Alan Merten announced that he and his wife would be contributing funding towards a “Merten Scholar” program.  In each incoming University Scholar Class, one Virginia resident will be selected as a “Merten Scholar,” receiving a special scholarship that will cover tuition, room and board, books, and related travel expenses. The first “Merten Scholar” is expected to arrive at Mason in Fall 2015. By creating a full scholarship only offered to Virginia students, it is apparent that the University Scholars Program has come full-circle as it begins to enter another chapter in its long history.
The staff of the Mason History Project would like to extend a special thank you to Donna Bafundo, Dr. Anthony Hoefer, Virginia Ann Lewis, and Christopher Preston for their assistance in uncovering the University Scholars Program History.
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