On Friday, May 20, George Mason University celebrated the graduation of over 10,000 earners of degrees and graduate certificates, graduates who embody and celebrate Mason’s diversity. Two of these graduates, Madison Essig, BA Integrative Studies ’22, and Charlotte Woodward, BA Sociology ’22, are leaving their mark on the university by making it a more accessible place for people with disabilities.
Essig and Woodward represent a select group of college graduates: both women have Down syndrome, and when they stood to receive their degrees at EagleBank Arena, they became only the fifth and sixth individuals with Down syndrome in the United States to do so. Along the way, these graduates worked to embody George Mason University’s commitment to inclusion.
“I feel like I have done a lot to get to this point,” said Essig. Originally at Mason through the Mason LIFE program, she earned her degree within four years. Essig has been very active on campus, as a member of the student senate and Gamma Phi Beta sorority, working with the George Mason Democrats, and attending Friday night Shabbat with Mason Hillel. Through her work in student government, Essig helped to pass “Madison’s Bill,” which expanded student government participation to Mason LIFE students, allowing them to vote in student body elections and run for office. She recalls this work as being among one of her proudest memories of her time at Mason. “It’s still making a great impact even today,” she said. About student senate, she added, “I got so much out of it, not just making the friends, but I gained a lot of leadership skills in showing what I can do to make this campus more inclusive.”
Advocacy also drives Charlotte Woodward. The straight-A student earned her degree while working for the rights of people with disabilities, helping to pass legislation in her home state, Virginia, that prevents disability-based discrimination against people who need organ transplants. The recipient of a heart transplant in 2012, she has since worked to ensure that persons with disabilities can receive equal access to similar life-saving opportunities. Through her work as a community outreach associate for the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS), she has met with legislators, taken part in advocacy events, served as editor in chief for an upcoming NDSS publication, and has become a popular presence on the society’s TikTok account.
Woodward is prepared to continue this work after graduation. “I am happy and proud to be graduating,” she said, “but I will be happier and prouder when I see people with disabilities on the George Mason University staff and faculty, as well as graduating from George Mason University.”
Kandi Pickard, NDSS president and CEO, appreciates the progress that Essig and Woodward have achieved in their time at Mason. “This inclusion is leading us to where more individuals with Down syndrome are seeking college opportunities, or seeking employment opportunities,” she said. “I just hope that more colleges and universities, as well as businesses, will invest in having people with Down syndrome and other disabilities in their organizations.”
May 23, 2022