A graduation walk in the clouds for this first-gen student


Angelo Collington has been waiting to walk across a graduation stage for about 12 years.

Angelo Collington and his family at campus event
Angelo Collington with his wife, Shinikal Dean, and with daughters Mya, 5, and Kennedy, 2. Photo provided

First, a paperwork snafu, in which he said his high school erroneously claimed he never earned a diploma, kept him home during the graduation ceremony. Then, COVID shut down Northern Virginia Community College’s 2021 ceremony.

So when Collington, a senior psychology major at George Mason University, walks across the graduation stage in May, it will be something special.

“Finally,” he said. “Being able to walk across the stage will be a very happy experience.”

Collington, 31, of Ashburn, Virginia, already had a graduation celebration at Mason’s event for “contemporary students,” those in nontraditional categories such as adult learners, transfer students, parenting students, students who are married, students with military affiliations, and students who were previously in foster care.

Collington, married to Mason alum Shinikal Dean, BA Sociology ’13, and with daughters Mya, 5, and Kennedy, 2, checks many of those boxes.

He is also a first-generation student and was part of the first cohort of students in the ADVANCE Program, the groundbreaking partnership between Mason and Northern Virginia Community College that provides a streamlined path toward a bachelor’s degree.

Between juggling his studies and his job as an IT specialist for CACI, it took Collington nearly five years to complete his degree. But his impact was clear, even becoming a peer leader in ADVANCE, a member of the Contemporary Student Services Advisory Board, and contributing to a panel with Mason President Gregory Washington about helping students who are parents.

“Being a student-parent, the dedication he’s had and the commitment to balance both, he does embody the spirit of ADVANCE,” said Rita Snyder-Furr, associate director in Mason’s Office of Community College Partnerships. “Anytime there was an opportunity to collaborate and improve the program, he was always there to support it.”

“He was reliable, and I knew he was someone I could count on,” said Caroline Simpson, coordinator for contemporary students in the office of Contemporary Student Services. “For many students, graduation highlights the next step in their life. But for contemporary students, they were already balancing life with being a student. Finishing their degree shows a lot of perseverance.”

Collington made an impression in the classroom, too, especially in PSYCH 461, a thoughtful special topics class that looks at the rehabilitation of children who commit serious crimes.

“It’s a very serious forensics area,” said Sybil Smith-Gray, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology who taught the class. “He was very focused and asked great questions. You could tell he’s not just dialing it in.”

“George Mason is a great university,” Collington said. “It’s so diverse, you never know who you’re going to run into. The professors truly care about you and, then, just an overall great environment.”

Collington, whose concentration is in developmental psychology, said he wants to earn his master’s degree and do community work in the areas of mental health and health disparities.

For now, though, he will turn his attention to his family—in particular watching the kids to allow Dean, his wife, to pursue her master’s in either business administration or public administration, perhaps even back at Mason.

“The fact that she has been the backbone to let me pursue my education while she watched the children is very supportive,” Collington said. “It’s not an individual effort. We’re a team.”

“We’re both equally involved with our children,” Dean said. “We don’t look at it like this is a ‘mom’ role and a ‘dad’ role. This is a parent role.”

Collington’s family was with him when he celebrated with Mason’s other contemporary students. They will be with him at a big family cookout to celebrate his graduation. And they certainly will be there when he finally walks across the graduation stage.

Just thinking about it, Collington said, “I’m on cloud nine.”