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College of Education and Human Development

Counseling Student Is Graduate Student of the Year

October 12, 2017

Mirella Saldaña Moreno found out that she was the Virginia School Counselor Association (VSCA) Outstanding Graduate Student of the Year while sitting in the parking lot at George Mason, checking e-mails before heading into work.

She wasn’t even aware she had been nominated.

“It was pretty overwhelming, but at the same time a positive type of overwhelmed,” she says.

Saldaña Moreno is a graduate student on the school counseling track in the Counseling and Development Program. She started the program in spring 2016. But that’s just a piece of her involvement in the college—and the world beyond.

Saldaña Moreno is working full-time as a program coordinator at Mason’s Early Identification Program, a college access program that works with eighth- to twelfth-grade students who plan to be the first in their families to go to college. And she’s working with Regine Talleyrand at CEHD on a research grant studying youth who have recently immigrated to the U.S.

Her work with young immigrants mirrors her own experience—Saldaña Moreno was born in Peru and came to the United States when she was 10 years old. She spent years attempting to navigate this country’s education system as an international student before the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, was founded. Certain educators provided her invaluable support, and others didn’t understand the nuances of her situation and weren’t able to provide that support.

Saldaña Moreno received her undergraduate degree from Mason in 2011 as an undocumented student. Afterward, she gravitated toward the field of counseling.

“I saw that there was a gap that I could bridge with my understanding of first generation and undocumented students, and my interest in working with youth and navigating the system,” she says.

She was nominated for the VSCA award by Victoria Stone, an assistant professor of counseling and development at CEHD. She taught Saldaña Moreno in her Counseling Children and Adolescents class and quickly noticed the passion and point of view she brought to classes.

“She has a tremendous personal way about her,” Stone says of Saldaña Moreno. “She connects with adults and children alike. She makes you comfortable.”

The turnaround from nomination to award was quick—just a few weeks—but Stone knew that Saldaña Moreno could win the award from the moment her name came up.

“The minute I said her name, everyone was like, ‘Yeah, yeah,’” Stone says. “She’s respected and supported by all the members of the faculty, and we’re really proud of her.”

For her part, Saldaña Moreno is still determining the path she’ll follow after she graduates (she expects to finish her degree in 2019). Though she’s studying counseling now, she’s had a lifetime worth of study in uncertainty. So she’s keeping herself open to whatever opportunities arise—to go wherever she’s needed. She’s just making sure to remember an important piece of advice as she moves forward: be prepared.

“Always be prepared for an opportunity,” she says. “That’s why I’m here, preparing myself.”