Friday was a big day at George Mason University, where the Patriot Center overflowed its capacity as thousands were on hand to see the latest class of graduates. Some people were actually turned away.
Credit for GMU's growth is attributed in part to one man who's getting ready to say goodbye himself.
It was a bittersweet day for the graduates as they prepare to leave behind a school many have grown to love. University President Alan Merten will share their experience this year after 16 years leading Mason and putting it on the national map. Dr. Merten is retiring.
“People talk about George Mason in a different way than they did 16 years ago,” Merten said.
During Merten's tenure, Mason became the fastest growing university in Virginia and one of its most diverse. When Merten arrived, about 6,000 students applied for admission. This year, almost 18,000 applied. Enrollment has grown from 24,000 to 33,000. Merten also presided over an ambitious building campaign.
“We were aggressive in getting the right people, programs and building the right buildings at all times no matter what was going on with the economy -- in Richmond, in Washington -- we made progress,” he said.
Merten said he takes the greatest satisfaction in how the George Mason community now views itself.
Merten said he's soaking it all in, trying to enjoy his final days as president. The many tokens of appreciation spill over from his office into the hallway, ranging from a piece of the Patriot Center scoreboard to a boat named for Merten and his wife. Saturday, in his last high-profile duty, he'll be the commencement speaker at the final 2012 graduation ceremony. It will likely bring a long, standing ovation.