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IF YOU GO

What: George Mason University’s 45th Commencement Ceremony
When: 10 a.m. Saturday; doors open at 9 a.m.
Where: George Mason University’s Patriot Center, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax.
Speaker: George Mason University President Alan G. Merten, who is retiring this summer after 16 years as the school’s head.

To be clear: Jody Shipp enrolled at George Mason University before her son, Devin Shipp, decided to attend.

Jody is quick to point this out.

“I was here first, so it’s not like I’m that mom who follows their kids,” the 49-year-old joked.

During the past two years, Jody and Devin, 26, who are both math majors, have drawn sideways glances and double takes from fellow students and professors who have had the duo in classes.

The Shipps said the recognition of the family resemblance usually follows the handing in of homework or exams— when professors realize the two share a last name and often are seated next to each other.

“From the teachers, they see our names on a test and they hand them back and say, ‘Wait. Shipp and Shipp?’” said Jody of Fairfax Station. “They’ll say, ‘There’s no way my son or daughter would let me take a class with them, let alone sit together.’”

Devin said his mother has helped raise his profile within the math department through her reputation as a hard worker and well versed student.

“Ninety percent of the people in the math department know me because of my mother and because of how hard she works,” Devin said. “When I first started taking classes with her, I was kind of competitive with her. … I’m one of those people who will walk into a math test having not studied, but absorbed everything. And I’ll do well. ... She’ll study really hard over days.”

The results of this family feud? Jody has a 3.85 grade point average and is graduating with honors in math and a magna cum laude title. Devin said his GPA — around 3.0 — is “nowhere near that” of his mother’s.

“The math majors are a pretty close group. It’s a tough major and they support one another,” said professor Tim Sauer, who had both Shipps in his class. “It’s fascinating to watch [fellow students] turn to Jody for her experience and perspective. Plus she’s a lot of fun.”

Of the 7,700 students graduating from Mason during Saturday’s 45th annual commencement ceremony, only 23 students will receive degrees in math.

“Many are snapped up by engineering and consulting companies — [like] Northrup Grumman, CACI, SAIC, Computer Sciences, MITRE, etc. or smaller startups,” Sauer said. “There doesn’t seem to be a recession for these students. They are quite sought after. A good portion — probably about half of our majors — want to further their education and pursue a masters or Ph.D.”

This is true of Jody, whose goal is to become a high school math teacher. She already has been accepted to Mason’s graduate program for education.

“When Devin was younger, he would come home and the first thing I’d ask was, ‘Do you have your math homework?’ He could see it coming,” Jody said. “It was always exciting for me to see that math homework and work on it with him …

“There are just so many misconceptions about math in the world. There’s math in everything. And that’s my goal: To rid kids of those misconceptions… The challenge is to teach these students in a ways that math makes sense for them.”

Having a good math teacher, she said, can make all the difference.

“I remember sitting in [trigonometry] class in high school and the teacher [was] telling us that you could measure the height of a building just knowing the angle of elevation,” Jody said, adding this was an “ah-ha” moment for her, that she hopes to share with others.

Both mother and son serve as tutors at the school’s Math Tutoring Center on campus. Jody also tutors students privately.

However, after college mother and son’s plans diverge.

Devin, a 2003 Centreville High School graduate, is commissioned by the U.S. Air Force as a pilot and begins active duty this winter.

“When I was a kid, my parents both worked for the airlines and I got to fly a lot,” Devin said. “So it was something I’ve wanted to do and the Air Force is the best way to do that.”

Math professor Maria Emelianenko said of Devin, “I think he will be able to achieve a lot in any field he chooses to pursue.”

She said Devin always sat in the front row, adding, “I wish other students were as motivated as him when it came to attending lectures and studying for exams.”

And although graduation represents the culmination of years of hard work for many students, for the Shipp family the ceremony will go a step further, as mother and son graduate with matching bachelor’s in math.

When mother and son turn their tassels, moving right to left, they will simultaneously become the first in their families awarded a four-year degree.

“I’m definitely excited to have it, especially since both my parents didn’t get their degrees when they were younger,” Devin said. “I guess we’ll both become the first at the same time. … I don’t think it’s any different than anything else I’ve done in life. She’s always been there next to me.”

Jody said she decided to go back to school after receiving an early retirement offer from the airline she worked for.

Devin’s father and Jody’s husband, David Shipp, said the moment represents the family’s emphasis on the importance of getting an education, as well as sticking together to achieve goals.

“I’m excited for them because I’ve always wanted to get my degree,” said David, who works for the American Institute of Physics at College Park. “I live this through them totally. It is a special, sentimental thing for me to see them complete something that I was not able to.”

David said he is the outlier in the family when it comes to not liking math. David and Jody have three children: Devin and his sisters Dani, 20, who is a student at Northern Virginia Community College, and Summer, 13, who attends Robinson Secondary School.

“Devin and his mom do have a really unique relationship,” David said.

When asked if he is the favorite child, Devin responded, “I’m not going to go on the record for anything like that. It will just lead to sibling rivalry…

“Since I’ve been a little kid, my mom has always been the driving factor for math with me. She was a motivator and someone to go to with questions… She’s perfect.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com