Honors programs serve highly talented students
Students who take advanced placement or high school honors courses often wonder if they should consider participating in an honors program in college. It's one way that institutions attract and nurture their students who are especially academically talented. They're commonly offered at Minnesota's private colleges, but just what do they involve?
Bethel University student Amy Riggins describes her honors experience as "intellectual stimulation and love saturated with geekiness." Since her first day at Bethel, Riggins said her honors cohort has been a consistent community. "There are so many stories I could tell about how we spend hours on end talking about anything from theology to the latest nerdy interest or gadget to carving pumpkins," she said.
The structure of our honors programs vary, but most invite freshmen whose GPAs and test scores meet their requirements. The number of students differs by institution; for example, Bethel University accepts 25 students each year while Concordia College accepts 80. Most students stay in the program for all four years of their undergraduate study, taking a portion of their courses in honors-only sections. Students benefit from classes that are smaller than average, taught by top teachers and usually more discussion-based.
We talked with administrators and students at three of our institutions to find out more about their programs.
A focus on community-building
Bethel receives around 65 applicants each year for its honors program and accepts 25. "We are looking for academically talented students who are intellectually curious, have an interest in the liberal arts and who want to dig deeper," said Sara Shady, director of the program and a philosophy professor. Students take four general education courses in honors sections and do two individualized research projects attached to courses — where they get significant one-on-one time with a professor, Shady said.
Students also complete a senior thesis that they defend before a committee made up of two Bethel faculty and an outside person who has expertise on the student's topic. One student who is taking a biology course that covers bacteria resistance to antibiotics is doing her thesis on the public health implications of this problem. "They defend their thesis much like they would in graduate school," Shady said.
Another strength of the Bethel program is a focus on community-building, Shady said. An honors course that stands out for Riggins was on marginalized communities and peoples, where one of the activities was a Roma (gypsy) party. Part of the fun was traipsing across campus, decked out in Roma attire, to retrieve a missing classmate, Riggins said. "I felt as if this silly and random exercise was an important part of my college (and life) experience, simply because of the people with whom I was traveling."
Community and business people who would like to volunteer to be on an honors thesis committee are invited to contact Shady.
Interdisciplinary and tuition-free seminars
Steve Laumakis, director of the Aquinas Scholars program and a professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, believes that an honors program should give students "greater than usual intellectual challenges." St. Thomas accepts around 65 students each year in its program. In addition to taking special sections in core courses, Aquinas scholars also take three two-credit seminars — tuition-free. "This is what sets St. Thomas apart," Laumakis said. The seminars are team-taught and run seminar-style — where students learn to construct and defend arguments. "Faculty aren't lecturers, they're facilitators," he said.
Aylie Meisner, who is president of the Aquinas Scholars Student Board, has found it to be very valuable. Last year she took the seminar "The Lunatic Fringe," where students discussed how people are drawn to extreme religions and what drives them psychologically to act in extreme ways. "Even now, [my classmates] still share stories from the news that pertain to the class," she said. "The interdisciplinary aspect of our program is something I think is incredibly special."
The non-academic aspects of Aquinas Scholars are important too, Meisner added. At monthly "Pizza with a Prof" events, a professor is invited to deliver a short lecture on a topic scholars have shown interest in. New this year is "Scholars Cinema" where the student board chooses an interesting movie, then students talk about it. "We've gotten a ton of positive feedback from these movie nights: it's led to a much stronger sense of community," Meisner said.
Understanding our changing world
Concordia College in Moorhead offers two honors tracks — one that is major-based and the other a "Credo" track. The focus of Credo is to explore the ideas that have significantly changed our world. In their first three years, Credo students take five specially designed courses in a range of disciplines to develop their critical thinking, discussion and writing skills. Examples of course topics are "Germany, Third Reich, Holocaust," "American Exceptionalism," "Life in the Universe" and "Cell Phones and Cyberspace." During the fourth year, students complete a capstone project and write a research paper.
"These courses allow students to engage each other at an intellectual level; there's a high level of energy that students share," said Concordia's dean and VP for academic affairs, Mark Krejci. But what really sets Credo apart, Krejci said, is the honors study abroad experience in Crete. "This is always a life-changing experience for honors students. They are surrounded by the best minds on campus and accompanied by hand-picked faculty."
Freshman Kari Neutzling said she has already felt a number of benefits from her participation. "I am surrounded by students who are truly interested in challenging and expanding their thinking and reasoning abilities. That desire for expanded knowledge leads to fantastic, in-depth discussions," she said.