“You’re very close to Washington, D.C., but you still get that true college feeling,” Goodwin said about George Mason’s Fairfax campus. She clicked through a slide show that showcased the school’s selling points: an average class size of 25 to 35 students; more than 30 places to eat, including Chick-fil-A and Panda Express; and plans to expand its campus in Arlington — where Amazon has promised to create 25,000 jobs at its second headquarters.
Goodwin, a bubbly New Yorker who earned her master’s degree at George Mason, described the admissions process and how to study abroad. On a slide about the coronavirus, she explained the school’s weekly testing protocols and a provision that requires students without religious or medical excuses to be vaccinated for the fall semester. Faculty and staff members were added to that mandate on Thursday.
The admissions counselor paused for questions. The group was silent.
“We don’t get a lot of pushback,” Goodwin said about the school’s policies, something she attributes to generally positive attitudes about the coronavirus vaccines. In Virginia, 53.8 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, five percentage points higher than the national figure, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post.
The vaccines have been an integral piece to reopening plans at colleges and universities throughout the country. About 600 campuses have enacted mandates for at least some students or employees, according to a database by the Chronicle of Higher Education. After more than a year of virtual learning, the vaccines offer a shot at normalcy, with campuses planning to return dorms, classrooms, dining halls and other spaces to full capacity.
But with more than half the country still unvaccinated and as the highly transmissible delta variant drives up caseloads, many schools will continue to enforce social-distancing requirements and encourage unvaccinated students to wear masks.
George Mason is slowly reintroducing in-person elements to campus, but with restrictions. The tour group was capped at 24 people — about one-third of its pre-pandemic size — as a safety precaution, Goodwin said. During her information session, students and their families sat in chairs spaced three feet apart, a distancing requirement that will stay in place until the campus vaccination rate reaches 80 percent. Officials will have a clearer picture of the school’s progress after Aug. 1, the deadline for students and employees to share their vaccination status.
As Goodwin’s session drew to a close, two student guides arrived to begin the next leg: the tour. Half the group joined Sam Harrison, a rising junior from East Windsor, N.J., who said she became a tour guide to branch out of her comfort zone. “I have a fear of public speaking,” she said.
Among Harrison’s group was Leigh Black, a rising high school senior from Vienna, Va. Black said she was drawn to George Mason because of its cybersecurity program and, during the tour, started to warm up to the idea of becoming one of its 37,000 students.
“It has a great environment and I like the area,” she said, although she is keeping her options open. The 16-year-old is also considering Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, she said.
Leigh will be the first child Scott Black, an engineer, sends off to college, he said. George Mason is about seven miles from the Blacks’ hometown, which is a plus.
“She’s close enough that she can still do her laundry,” Scott Black said. He added they both feel confident about the way the school has handled the pandemic. “It’s very encouraging that there is regular testing and a vaccine mandate.”
Harrison led the group through the campus and past her favorite spot, a row of colorful benches hand-painted to showcase the university’s student clubs. “I picked Mason because of the community, and that really embodies what it means to be a Mason Patriot,” she said about the benches.
The group next headed to Fenwick Library, where staff have spent much of the pandemic digitizing materials for students and professors working remotely. Outside a cluster of residence halls, Harrison did her best to highlight the perks of communal living: Laundry is free and each dorm is within walking distance of a gym and a cafeteria, she said.
Cameron Sigmon, a 17-year-old from Manassas, Va., hasn’t selected a potential major but has “heard good reviews from older friends” about George Mason. The campus is also close to home — another bonus.
“There’s a lot of diversity, a lot of options for careers,” added Cameron’s mom, Meredith Sigmon.
As Harrison fired off facts about campus dining, Meredith Sigmon thought about last year’s freshman class and the thousands of students who selected their colleges without ever seeing a campus once the pandemic halted tours.
“I feel bad for all the students who had to go through that last year,” she said. The first year of the pandemic robbed young people of milestones and coming-of-age moments. Thousands of high-schoolers missed prom and scores of college freshmen never had move-in day.
The families on Harrison’s tour said they were grateful to see the campus firsthand. George Mason will continue to offer virtual tours, which have “definitely made [campus] more accessible to students,” particularly those with disabilities or who live far away, Harrison said.
The next stop on the tour was Horizon Hall, home to the College of Humanities and Social Sciences — a chance to show off one of the newest buildings on campus and enjoy an air-conditioned respite from the humid, 88-degree weather.
George Mason was the latest stop for the Stitts, a family from Columbus, Ohio.
“It really fits a lot of the checkpoints,” said Julia Stitt, 16. The school offers dozens of programs in the humanities and the campus is close to a major city, she said. Most important, there are gluten-free dining options, a must for Stitt, who has celiac disease.
And students are not required to submit their standardized test scores — “a good cushion after this last year,” Stitt said. Many schools enacted temporary test-optional policies in the wake of the pandemic, but George Mason has employed the practice since 2008, Goodwin said.
Julia and her parents, Marc and Erin, have tried virtual tours, but said they prefer the in-person experience — speaking directly with students and admissions officials, walking into classrooms and seeing the library.
Marc Stitt works in marketing and said he knows how to make something look good on camera. He said it’s difficult to get an accurate sense of a campus and its culture through a computer screen.
“There’s something about talking to the students and admissions people that you get here,” Erin said. Marc added, “There’s no way to get to know everything about the campus just driving by.”