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Mason Plans to Use Educational Opportunities to “Pay It Forward”

May 13, 2014

Michael Mason  
Michael Mason, second from right, was named to the All-Missouri Academic First Team this spring. Also pictured are, from left, Dennis Michaelis, St. Louis Community College interim chancellor; Zora Mulligan, executive director of the Missouri Community College Association; and Sandra Knight, faculty adviser of STLCC-Forest Park’s Phi Theta Kappa chapter.

While sleeping on the banks of the Mississippi River when he arrived in St. Louis three years ago, Michael Mason had a better future in mind. On May 18, he will graduate with honors from St. Louis Community College, and has been awarded scholarships to continue his psychology degree.

Struggling to survive, Mason became determined to help mentally ill and homeless people in the region, for he knew first-hand about such obstacles.

“I want to help all those looking to overcome mental illness right here in the St. Louis community, because I have walked in their shoes. I have faced a life of being on the outside of the cultural norm,” he said.

Mason, 35, has earned a Coca-Cola Gold Scholar Award, which is a $1,500 scholarship, and was named to the 2014 All-Missouri Academic First Team. He received free tuition at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a cash award of $2,500 from the Pierre Laclede Honors College. Graduating with a 3.95 grade-point average, Mason plans to finish his undergraduate degree and then complete graduate work as a school psychologist.

Finding a Purpose
Academic success might have been a pipe dream his first summer here, but the encouragement of others led to a new purpose and outstanding achievement.

“Because I chose a community college to begin my journey into higher education, my family and I have a brighter future,” he said.

Starting classes at STLCC-Forest Park in summer 2012, Mason thrived. He became vice president of service for the Xi Epsilon chapter of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, was in the Forest Park Honors program, worked as a peer tutor in Academic Support Center and as a Supplemental Instruction leader, which helps students learn coursework more efficiently.

Now that completing an associate degree has become a reality, Mason won’t soon forget the hurdles he overcame or the people who helped along the way. Because he was a non-traditional student who had not been in any type of academic environment for more than 15 years, Mason decided community college would be the best place to start.

“After high school, I had no clear focus or ambition in my life. I had joined the Army and served for seven years primarily for the structure it afforded,” he said. “After my military service, I found myself adrift and at the mercy of a job market that demanded more than a high school diploma. I knew I had the aptitude and the attitude to succeed, but was lacking the credentials.”

Gaining Knowledge, Strengthening Character
With the help of a support network at STLCC, he was encouraged. “I embraced my educational opportunity. The community of the college eased the transition for me and aided me to refine my life’s vision,” he said.

TRiO, a federal outreach and student services program, helped him obtain his degree in spite of his disadvantaged background.

“TRiO provides support to overcome the effects of low-income, developmental disabilities, and lack of family educational achievements,” he said. “Because of the skills I have acquired, I have been able to shed light to peers about the services provided and how it can brighten their futures as well.”

He noted that the Honors program helped him recognize his own strengths as a student, and identify his interests of study.

“This (program) has pushed me to work above and beyond normal assigned requirements for my courses, and has given me the opportunity to work closely with my instructors,” he said.

Through one of the two Honors Scholarships awarded per year, he was able to cover 12 credit hours per semester. To qualify, a student must carry a cumulative GPA of 3.5 on a 4.0 scale.

His induction into Phi Theta Kappa provided the prospect of development for “leadership and service, for an intellectual climate for exchange of ideas and ideals, for lively fellowship for scholars, and for stimulation of interest in continuing academic excellence,” he said.

He was also recognized through the Emerging Scholars program, which celebrates students’ success in overcoming academic challenges. Awardees have completed at least two developmental courses and at least 12 hours of college-level course work while maintaining a GPA of 3.5 or above. Mason pointed to two mentors, Gary Forde in psychology and Arabela Koric in mathematics, as instrumental in his success.

Overcoming Many Obstacles
Used to adversity, Mason had grown up in an impoverished border region in South Texas.

“Life has held other obstacles for me, including mental illness and overcoming the hurdles that come because of a late-life diagnosis,” he said.

In June 2011, Mason and his future wife, Dawn, had taken a bus from San Antonio to Arkansas so that he could help her flee an abusive relationship. They then hitchhiked to St. Louis, arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They lived for six months as displaced persons, eventually securing living quarters through Places for People. His wife has chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and cannot currently work.

“St. Louis opened up its arms to us. People helped us get off the streets. My heart’s desire is to pay it forward,” he said. “I have personally seen the broken lives of others, and I want to help.”

Thus, his goal to serve people in St. Louis who struggle with mental illness, and end the stigma commonly associated with it.

“It is my passion to ultimately serve the low-income and homeless populations in a public capacity as an advocate for care and treatment, in conjunction with such organizations as NAMI and Places for People, as well as in a therapeutic/clinical role,” he said.

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. Mason noted that NAMI has helped him build better lives for he and his family, giving him  access to resources such as treatments, supports and research that has raised awareness throughout communities for those in need and those with mental illness.

Mason and his wife have a nearly 2-year-old son, Joshuah Michael, who was born the month he returned to school.

“Raising a child is the most rewarding obligation any parent has the privilege to undertake,” he said. “It takes a real man to be a father. I am going to school and working very hard just so that I can live up to that very lofty goal.

“I have felt so accepted going to school here,” he added. “By turning my thoughts to selfless service to others, this in turn has given me a better outlook on life and hope for the future."