Grrr. Why is it that a university cannot be seen as a top tier school until its basketball team is invited into the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament?
Almost on a lark, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia (outside of Washington, DC) was invited to participate in the NCAA tournament this year. Against all odds, GMU has hung around. Last night by defeating Wichita State 63-55, GMU moved into the final eight teams. The sports world is agog. This was not supposed to happen. Commuter universities that start out their existence as community colleges in the 1960s are not supposed to become top tier schools so quickly. I mean, the ivy has not yet had a chance to become established on George W. Johnson Center.
I am not much of a sports fan, but I am a GMU graduate. I received a master’s degree in Software Systems Engineering from GMU in 1999. It was a logical choice for me, but not only because I lived about ten miles away from the main campus. Even in the mid 1990s, GMU offered a top tier software engineering school. In addition, I could take all my courses at night and pay in state tuition rates. Still, I did not have to choose GMU. I could have chosen tonier institutions of learning like George Washington University, that offered similar programs. Alternatively, I could have done what my wife did. She was earning a bachelor’s degree herself at the time. She picked a genuine commuter school, Strayer University. However, I chose GMU because what was most important to me was not just a diploma, but also an excellent graduate education. I got it at GMU.
I do not know how many reading this have had the opportunity to get through graduate school and if so what you thought of your education. I know what my wife thought about Strayer University. It was not that it was a bad school. It just was not a great school. If you did your assignments, showed up in class, studied modestly before the test then it was hard not to pull a B in a course. Her instructors were so so, from great to mediocre. It took her about six years working on her education part time, but she eventually received her degree.
That was not my experience at GMU. Granted, a graduate program is assumed to be more challenging than a baccalaureate program. Each course was quite a challenge, but it was not a challenge in the sense that to succeed I had to memorize textbooks. Rather, to succeed I had to push myself academically to the limit. For my wife studying was a halfhearted sort of thing. She is naturally brilliant where I am not, so she could work in some spare time between school and a full time job. I was busy all the time. Free time was non-existent during semesters.
Every professor I had at GMU felt top tier to me. Moreover, they knew how to put us through the academic wringer. Most were not so much sadistic as intent that we were going to be overflowing with their expertise in the subject area. Each course though was not based on research that was ten years old. We learned state of the art theory and practices. I learned an enormous amount of very useful information during my three years at GMU which I have subsequently applied to my job. During grad school I was constantly busy. I certainly did not have a moment to spare to see the Patriots play basketball. Even my semester breaks were crammed with homework.
Half my classes had group projects. As if my full time job, getting to class twice a week and the studying were not enough to fully occupy my time, I also had to work through complex group projects with my classmates. Eventually I earned my diploma. I can honestly say I have never worked harder in my life to reach any goal, nor felt more satisfaction from having achieved it. I have my diploma framed and on the wall of my office. I want people to see it. I want them to know the blood, sweat and tears that went into getting it. In addition, I want them to know that GMU is one damned fine university. Commuter school? Bah!
I am glad the rest of the country now understands that GMU is a “real” university. Despite the many top tier professors, including some who have won renown, now my alma mater also has a top tier basketball team. I would not be surprised if GMU is now the best university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I know the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Virginia Technological Institute and others have hard won reputations too. Perhaps they are resting on their laurels. I do know that GMU is the scrappy university that could. Our reputation was built by a lot of very hard work, and nurtured by foresighted leaders over many decades.
At GMU, I did not get just a diploma. I got what I really craved: a top tier education in the field I had made my career. Those employers who think that an Ivy League diploma by itself means something unique should think twice. I strongly suspect the rest of GMU’s departments are as excellent as its School of Information Technology and Engineering. Just by earning a diploma at GMU, a student is telling potential employers something they should want to hear: their education was top notch.
If it took a while for GMU’s excellence to make it to their basketball team, well, academics has always been its top priority.