Mason LIFE Student Changes Student Government


By Isabella LaMadgeleine, Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: Since this article, Fourth Estate has updated her progress in Student Government here, and has spoken with her further on separate topics, which we have added a transcript of below this original article. 

Madison Essig did not set out to be a trailblazer. She takes the same classes, eats in the same dining halls, and thinks of Mason as her home just like the rest of the student body. However, the rest of the students here at George Mason were expected to graduate from high school.

Essig was born with Down Syndrome. At the time of her birth, her parents were told that she may not be able to learn to read or write. Graduating from high school and attending college were completely out of the question.

But due to her determination, hard work, and active role in the classroom, Essig graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in June 2016. According to the Washington Post, she is believed to be the first student with Down Syndrome to graduate with a standard diploma from a Washington high school since the D.C. public school system began keeping digital records in 1996.

Essig is currently a sophomore in Mason’s Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) program. She is also Mason LIFE’s representative in the student senate.

Before this semester, student government rules prevented Mason LIFE students from running for office. However, the student senate recently passed legislation to change the constitution so that students like Madison are allowed to run in campus elections.

“Mason is supposed to be an inclusive community, and they have not been fulfilling that,” Essig said.

“It is time for Mason to step up their game,” she said after the passage of the aptly named Madison’s Bill.

Due to the success of the senate bill, Essig plans to run for student senate in the upcoming spring election.

When asked why she wants to be involved with the student government here at Mason, Essig said that “I think it’s important to have a voice… student government has done a lot of great things, and I want to make sure that keeps going.”

After her college graduation, Essig hopes to become a professional advocate for people with disabilities.

Update interview with Madison Essig by Isabella LaMadgeleine, April 2018. 

Fourth Estate (IVE): Can you give a description of your experience with Mason LIFE, what the program is and your experiences with it?

Madison Essig (ME): I am a student in the Mason LIFE program. It is a program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It is a four year program, and we have all these components of exploration, which range from university classes to our own academics, which are core classes. We are certificate-based, and we do not actually get degrees, but honestly that is not a bad thing, because we do have the chance to get a concentration and study something that we are passionate about. I am the first person to enter Greek life in a sorority, and also the first one to be a student Senator.

IVE: Congratulations!

ME: Thank you so much! I really felt that Mason LIFE was the start of it, and now it pushes me to go out into the real world, and actually get a degree, and clear a path in something I’m passionate about, which is the disability field and TV journalism.

IVE: Is it true that you are leaving Mason LIFE and entering the mainstream program?

ME: Yes, it is true. I am starting that this fall. I am leaving, but I haven’t left yet, as the program does not end until May 4.

IVE: Can you explain a little bit about why you are departing?

ME: I think it is important [that I am leaving] because of how disabilities are portrayed in the media, and I also think it’s because I think I will be the first person from the program to be doing that. I feel like in a way, I am one of their success stories.

IVE: You’re in Student Senate, you’re in a sorority, you’re highly successful, and it helps show that students that have disabilities do not have it consume their entire life.

ME: And with the program we have yearbooks, which the university does not do. I think it is a great thing, because we do create memories with these people. They have different pages of everything, and thanks to me and what I have done for the program, as there was already a page for inspirational leaders from the program, I will also be making my mark there.

IVE: Can you talk about the issues that Mason LIFE has been having with student housing for a second?

ME: There are issues, but I think that housing is the least of their issues. But they were saying that even though it is not a problem, there are some underlying issues.

IVE: Can you discuss some of the issues?

ME: Honestly, I don’t think it’s programming. When it comes to housing, it’s the housing part of it. I actually do understand where they are coming from. I have talked about it with my fellow senators, as they have noticed the issue as well, so it’s not just me. They do designate floors, and even though space is limited, this is not the program; the two main dorms that we are living in are Liberty [Square] and Potomac [Heights], and that’s not the problem, it’s just the designation of floors. We do have some Mason students around us, and it’s not that bad, but we only have three or four on each floor, with Mason LIFE and Mason students. We do have an RA system, which I think is great for the students that need support, but it is also based on a person-to-person basis, as there are some students who do not need that much support. They should treat them as an RA, not as a friend.

IVE: Are there any solutions that housing could implement that could solve these issues?

ME: There are solutions out there. They do know how our program works. I would say just talking with the program, and having clearer communication, as we do have it, but I think there is a little more of a gap.

IVE: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?

ME: I feel like the way that disabilities are portrayed in the media now was a hot topic a while ago, and then it disappeared, but now it’s back with the current federal administration. I think it should not be that way anymore because people are educated and aware about people with disabilities, they’re just not educated about programs on college campuses. I have so many friends that do know about it, they might just not know enough, and then there’s the rest of the student body that doesn’t know that is here getting the same education as them. This is especially true when it comes to college campuses, that’s what I want to do and work on, to be honest. I want to focus on college campuses and how disabilities are portrayed in the media across those campuses.