On her first day of classes at George Mason College, Carren Bersch followed careful directions to a condemned elementary school at Bailey's Crossroads.

"We were new in the area and my father had heard that George Mason was part of the University of Virginia, so I decided to go there," Bersch recalls. "I didn't know what to expect."

That was 1963.

Today Bersch is the director of alumni relations for George Mason University. She works in a modern, carpeted office in the heart of an authentic college campus in Fairfax City.She is also still a student -- in the university's masters' degree program.

"I have really seen a lot of changes," admits Bersch. "I remember when this whole area was nothing but woods."

When Bersch and her 2,000 classmates came to Mason (as the school is still affectionately called) in the early 1960s, it was a two-year institution, an extension of the University of Virginia, with classes held in abandoned schools around Fairfax County.

In 1966 Mason became a four-year school.

And in 1972 it won its independence from Charlottesville to become a university in its own right.

Today, George Mason University has 13,000 students, a main campus in Fairfax City, a smaller campus and a law school in Arlington and a graduate program, which last year was expanded to include doctoral work. This year's $30 million budget is nearly triple the amount it was six years ago and bulldozers are busily moving land for new dormitories, a second student union, a new theater and several other buildings.

The only glaring omission at George Mason is football, and administrators predict football will never come to the school because of the high cost of running the sport.

But in spite of phenomenal growth, George Mason is plagued by poor public perception.

In the minds of many people, George Mason is still a local junior college for students without the grades or money to go to the University of Virginia.

"When I came to Mason, I planned to transfer out after two years," admits senior Lisa McGrady, a government major and the managing editor of the student newspaper. "But then I got involved in so many student activities that I didn't want to leave."

The fact that George Mason is a "commuter" school, where only 500 students live on campus, may contribute to the community's uncertain image of George Mason. McGrady, who like the majority of George Mason students, comes from Northern Virginia, admits she may have missed something by attending a commuter school.

"I guess I missed getting out on my own and the trauma of freshman year," McGrady says with a laugh. "But on the other hand, it's helped me a lot. George Mason has allowed me to get involved in so many things."

Students at George Mason insist they have a relatively "normal" college life. There are fraternities and sororities, clubs, occasional protests (administrators refused to allow camping on school property during the annual Mason Day celebration earlier this month which raised the ire of many students) and lots of drinking. e

"I love it here," says senior Becky Moore. Although Moore's parents live in McLean, she lives in one of the school's apartment-dormitories, because of the independence she says it allows her.

"The social life is pretty good," Moore says, "except for weekends when most people go home."

Leading the fight against the poor public image is university President George W. Johnson, who came on board three years ago with broad visions for the school.

Today the North Dakota native is still exuberant, optimistic and realistic.

"Higher education is in a depressed state nationally," Johnson says, relaxing on the couch in his office. "There is a marked contrast to what we have here at George Mason.

"George Mason has been given the go-ahead to become a really unique university. Applications are up 20 percent and yet because our physical plant can't grow fast enough to keep up, we can only admit 5 percent more students next year than in the current year."

But the drop in the admissions rate, officials say, has some pluses -- for one thing, it allows the school to be more selective in choosing its student body. Instead of admitting nearly everyone who could afford the $10 application fee, as has been the case in past years, the school now accepts only one-third of all applicants.

"George Mason is a very exciting place to be," Johnson says, "But we still have a long way to go (before operating on an equal footing with Virginia's two prestige state schools, University of Virginia and William and Mary)."

There are several facets which make George Mason unusual among schools striving to become major universities. One is the preponderance of commuters. Another is an older student body -- the average age of a George Mason student is 24 -- five years older than the national average for college students.

Because a large percentage of the student body either works for the government or wants to work for the government, many courses are designed with a public policy emphasis. For instance, the school is planning to offer six new doctoral degrees during the next two years. One will be in environmental biology and public policy; another will be in applied psychology, concentrating on the stresses involved in organization and management.

Looking ahead, Johnson says he sees plans for a large theater and extensive public forums as one way to involve the public in George Mason and help the school earn the respect it has so long been denied.

"I almost inevitably sound pretentious and grandiose when I talk about this," says Johnson smiling. "But I see George Mason becoming a cultural center for the community.

"George Mason wants to be a place where large issues are discussed."

The school is also trying to re-awaken its alumni, who university officials believe are unaware of many of the changes at their alma mater.

"When a lot of people went to Mason (in the past) there were few activities and few opportunities to meet other students," acknowledges alumni director Bersch, recalling her own college classes in that condemned elementary school. "I'm trying now to bring these people together for the first time."

One method is ZIP code parties. Berch has scheduled a series of parties for area alumni sharing the same ZIP codes as a way for people to meet each other.

"This is a really neat place to be," Berch says enthusiastically. "I like it so much I just bought a house across the street."