George Mason University may be only 30 miles from a city that is over 70 percent black and an even shorter hop from the small, scattered black neighborhoods of Northern Virginia. But some prospective black students see the predominately white college as light years away from them culturally.
George Mason is trying to change that image -- in part to conform with the mandatory state desegregation plan for higher education -- by attracting and keeping more black students. Roughly 350, or 2.7 percent, of GMU's projected fall enrollment of 12,900 will be black, a figure slightly above previous years.
As part of the state desegregation plan, GMU is offering incentive grants of $1,000 to black students to help meet annual tuition of $880 for in-state students and $1,656 for out-of-staters. This year, the university will award 38 incentive grants, compared with 19 last year.
University officials also are emphasizing that GMU -- still primarily a commuter school -- expects by September 1981 to add 500 new dormitory rooms to the existing 500 to meet the housing needs of students who cannot afford or find the high-rent apartments often in short supply in surrounding Fairfax County.
"We want the campus to be diverse, to reflect the real world," said university spokeswoman Helen Ackerman. "To have an all-white campus isn't very realistic these days. We hope to make minority students feel George Mason is their kind of university."
Besides the challenge of recruiting more black students, says Judy Pelham, a university counselor who works extensively with minority students, the university must find ways to make sure that these students meet the major goal of college work -- by staying in school and earning a degree.
The campus racial imbalance, Pelham said, "is so very obvious that you have to do something to help black students adjust. The worse thing you could do is not recognize (the imbalance) and deal with it."
One step George Mason recently took to ease the transition for new black students was to sponsor a special orientation seminar for incoming minority freshmen.
Twenty-eight members of the class of '84 came from as far away as Williamsburg and New York to attend a day-long seminar with Pelham, other faculty members and currently enrolled black students.
In meeting rooms at the student union, students and faculty discussed career planning, how to study effectively, how to make good use of a tutor and how to get good advice from academic counselors.
There, were other discussions, as well. One topic was communicating -- verbally and through body language -- with white students and faculty members. For example, when does assertiveness become aggression? In group encounter sessions, the students acted out situations where normal conflicts or misunderstandings might be perceived as having racial overtones, and suggested ways of dealing with such situations.
"Basically, we want to tell them what it's like to survive on a white campus if you're a black student, the kinds of experiences you might expect," Pelham said.
Andy Evans, a staff member with the university's program to recruit minority students, said part of the problem for some black students boils down to expectations: what they can expect and what is expected of them.
"The biggest problem of minority students is the problem of fear," Evans said.
Pelham echoed that belief.
"Very often, black students are afraid to ask for help because they think people expect them to be inferior," said Pelham. "They're afraid to go to a tutor because it's like saying, 'I'm dumb. I've failed somehow.' But they need to know that when problems exist, there are things they can do about them."
Alan Merzer is a 23-year-old Vienna resident who dropped out of GMU after his freshman year because a knee injury forced him to quit the basketball team -- and playing basketball had been his sole reason for attending college. Merzer, who attended the seminar for new black students, is returning to GMU as a sophomore business major, now determined to get his degree.
"I never did seek a tutor when I needed one. I don't know if it was pride or what, but this time I'm going all the way," said Merzer. "When I came in the first time, I didn't know who to talk to or where to get help. Things have changed since I was here. They're making a considerable effort to . . . help minority students."
Brenda Jones, a sophomore psychology major from Richmond, remarked. "I didn't have anything like this (seminar) when I came to orientation. And I think there were some things they (incoming students) needed to know that we could help them with.
"For example, some people might feel at some point that they're not wanted here because the faculty may be evading you. You keep asking for appointments (with professors) and they say they're busy. If it happens a couple of times, you might get discouraged, like I did.
"The black student might feel overwhelmed and depressed and want to transfer. But you've got to be determined."
Javita Knight, an Arlington junior majoring in dramatic arts, said. "A lot of black people have a fear of coming here. They figure it's a white university and you can only survive if you're white. I thought that was a narrow way of thinking.
"The school is not so big that you don't get to run into new people each year. I've learned a lot about other people and countries just from being here. . .
"At a black college, there's just one big circle (of black friends and experiences) and it doesn't really expand. I didn't want to go to an all-black school like Howard because I lived in a neighborhood that was black and I know how to deal with that part of my life. I wanted to expand myself."