Honors Testimonials: Georgia Honors Program

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of testimonials from students and faculty at leading public university honors colleges and programs.

STUDENTS:

Nivita Sharma (Class of 2018)

As only a sophomore at The University of Georgia, I can confidently say that in another two years from now I will define my undergraduate career by the opportunities that have been presented by the Honors Program. I have been given the privilege to attend the first state chartered university in the nation with a student body of 36,000, while also receiving specialized attention through the small liberal arts college atmosphere of the Honors Program.

Honors classes are taught by world-renowned professors who have the genuine desire to foster intellectual growth inside and outside the classroom. But what has made my college experience particularly unique is the cutting edge research I have been conducting with the unwavering support and guidance of a UGA faculty member. As an Honors student, I was able to engage in research in an area of my own interest through the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) from the very first day I set foot on campus.

Besides the academic endeavors I have embarked on with the support of the Honors Program, the motivation and core values provided by the intimate community of faculty, administrators, fellow students, and alumni is unparalleled by any other institution in the nation I know of. The social support and many activities sponsored by Honors student groups, especially the Honors Program Student Council, add to the strong community that Honors students enjoy.

The University of Georgia Honors Program has gone above and beyond to help me achieve goals that I could have only dreamed of before.

Torre Lavelle (Class of 2016; Udall Scholar and Schwarzman Scholar)

The UGA Honors Program is incredible in its commitment to undergraduate research and connecting some of the university’s (and world’s) leading professors with students. During my second year at UGA, I was able to pursue research on anthelmintic resistance through CURO. Dr. Vanessa Ezenwa, my Honors research mentor, played an invaluable role that went far beyond the usual job description, a common depiction when Honors students talk about their faculty mentors—UGA professors value undergraduate research in a manner that I have found to be unmatched at any other institution. She even connected me with an internship this past summer at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Virginia.

Honors-funded travel grants have been invaluable in allowing me to delve into my academic interests undeterred. From presenting my research to other students at the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference to spending part of my summer in Fiji, where I studied human-environment interaction and participated in a homestay in the coastal village of Waitabu, my adventures have always begun with a simple phrase of support from Honors administrators: “What’s next?”

I have also always been struck by the Honors Program’s ability to serve as a strong yet diverse community, and constant source of support and inspiration. It has built its alumni portal in a manner that allowed me to connect with a graduate who works at the State Department, and covered the cost of many a lunch during networking events.

Lastly, the support of the Honors Program as I applied for, and ultimately was awarded, multiple national scholarships is the reason why I have the life-changing opportunity to pursue my graduate work internationally, and why I feel confident in the academic direction I have taken.

Karishma Sriram (Class of 2016; Goldwater Scholar)

Entering college as a Foundation Fellow–UGA’s top academic scholarship which is housed in the Honors Program–I was immediately immersed in an encouraging and creative environment. Through the Fellowship, I have been able to participate in intriguing book discussions, dinner seminars and conversations that helped me shape my understanding of the world around me.

Further, the Fellowship afforded me the ability to travel during my career. Through its aid, I’ve taken a class under a Fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University, traveled to Harvard College to present my stem cell research, ventured to Bolivia to observe the health care conditions in the impoverished La Paz, and studied abroad in Morocco and Bali with cultural and religious immersion experiences.

Beyond the extensive travel and enrichment opportunities, the Fellowship has provided me with a community of peers and advisers that have guided and aided me in my growth as a student, friend and person.

FACULTY MEMBERS:

Dr. Marcus Fechheimer, University Professor of Cellular Biology, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences

The academic rigor at UGA has risen dramatically in the last decade. The average undergraduate student at UGA today would have been in the Honors Program 10 years ago, and students in the Honors Program today would have been in the top 1% 10 years ago. It is truly impressive that our Honors Program continues to recruit and engage these outstanding students! This is the view of a faculty member who is completing his 30th year at UGA.

The characteristic that best describes the UGA Honors Program is engagement of faculty and students working together to learn, discover, and create. This engagement is most patent in Honors classes that feature smaller sections and advanced material. Some courses employ an Honors option so that students earn Honors credit by doing extra work such as (in my cell biology class) writing analytical reviews of recent publications in the primary literature. I also regularly teach an Honors seminar in the area of neurodegenerative diseases- a topic too specialized for the regular curriculum. This type of class utilizing exclusively primary sources represents a level of scholarship and mentoring that is expected at the 8000 level for doctoral students. In the UGA Honors Program, sophomores engage at this level.

Finally, undergraduate research promotes engagement of Honors students across every discipline at the University. Research transforms students who develop persistence, creativity, teamwork, and communication skills. Engagement in research promotes self-confidence that emanates from authentic accomplishment. The Honors Program promotes research participation and engagement in many ways including CURO scholars, Gateway seminars, Summer Fellowships, CURO Symposium, Theses, and the CURO Scholar transcript notation.

By providing such opportunities for engagement and discovery, the Honors Program is the engine for both the transformation of students and for the rise of UGA to the elite among public universities.

Dr. Loch Johnson, Regents Professor of International Affairs, School of Public and International Affairs

Having been a University faculty member for almost forty years, I have many wonderful memories of campus life. My happiest moments, though, have been the many semesters when I have been engaged in the UGA Honors Program. The students in the Program are uniformly first-rate: smart, engaged in student and community activities, active in classroom discussions, and always punctual in the completion of assignments with a high level of excellence. These students have also been amenable to experiences beyond the classroom, whether discussions of current events over coffee, longer conversations over lunch, or coming to my place for a home cooked meal (as my Honors classes always do). The size of the class–always less than twenty–makes it possible as well to have rich dialogues among the class members and the instructor, which is more difficult in our typically larger classes.

I have also enjoyed the diversity of the Honors classes, with students from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. Often many of the students are immigrants, or their parents are, which brings a wonderful international dimension to the classroom—especially valuable for my International Affairs Department.

Finally, I would note that the administrators of the Honors Program are top-draw in every way: the classes are well-organized and thoughtfully scheduled, the students come with an outstanding work ethic and a lively interest in intellectual matters, and the “home office” in Moore College is invariably a font of sound counsel and encouragement.

The UGA Honors Program is a five-star operation!

Dr. David Mustard, Meigs Associate Professor of Economics, Terry College of Business

Throughout my career at UGA, I have taught Honors classes, mentored Honors students, and advised students through CURO. In these capacities I have had the privilege of interacting with a cadre of extremely smart, interesting, and motivated students.

Over the past ten to fifteen years, UGA Honors students have been extremely successful in national and international scholarship competitions. I have myself taught and advised two Rhodes Scholars, a Marshall Scholar, two Fulbright Scholars, a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow, a recipient of the top university-wide Ph.D. assistantship at Duke University, many winners and finalists of other prestigious scholarships, and also multiple Olympians, including one gold medal winner.

Such students exhibit enthusiasm for learning, are intellectually inquisitive, engage the readings and class material, and work extremely hard, which fundamentally changes the manner in which I teach classes. For example, in my education policy Honors class, instead of using a textbook, the required readings are largely articles from peer reviewed academic journals. In that class I also assign group research projects that have generated many excellent papers. Many of these students leverage that opportunity to do research into additional undergraduate research experiences that have produced five CURO Best Paper Awards, book chapters, and a co-authored publication in an influential economics journal.

My participation in the UGA Honors Program has truly been one of the highlights and most rewarding aspects of my professional career.

UGA Honors Student: Honors, Mentoring, Research Lead to 2016 Marshall Scholarship

Editor’s Note: The following post comes from the University of Georgia and staff writer Camie Williams.

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia Honors student Meredith Paker has been named a recipient of the Marshall Scholarship to pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom. Up to 40 Marshall Scholars are selected each year, and Paker is UGA’s third student in the last decade to earn the award and the seventh in the university’s history.

Meredith Paker

Meredith Paker

Paker, a native of Madison, Wisconsin, and a recipient of UGA’s Foundation Fellowship, plans to pursue a master’s degree in economic and social history from the University of Oxford. She will graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Terry College of Business and a minor in mathematics from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

While at UGA, Paker has conducted economics research with faculty members Jonathan Williams, David Bradford and William Lastrapes. Contributing to a growing literature on the prevalence and impact of off-label prescriptions in the U.S. pharmaceuticals market, she has recently presented her work at the International Health Economics Association conference in Italy and at the UGA Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities Symposium. After completing her master’s at Oxford, her goal is to pursue a doctorate in economics and begin a career as an academic economist.

“The University of Georgia is very proud of Meredith for this accomplishment,” said President Jere W. Morehead. “Her selection as a Marshall Scholar is a testament to the quality of UGA students and the benefits of undergraduate research. I am confident that Meredith will excel in her studies at Oxford University and that she will make a significant impact on the field of economics throughout her career.”

The Marshall Scholarship, established by an Act of Parliament in 1953, is one of the highest academic honors bestowed on American post-baccalaureate students. More than 900 students from across the U.S. apply annually. The program, which was created in gratitude for U.S. assistance to the United Kingdom during World War II under the Marshall Plan, provides funding for up to three years of graduate study at any United Kingdom university in any field.

“I am so pleased for Meredith, and I am appreciative of the excellent faculty mentoring she has received,” said David S. Williams, associate provost and director of UGA’s Honors Program. “I think it is important to note that Meredith is not only a gifted thinker and researcher, but it is clear that she is also deeply passionate about using her intellect for the betterment of society.”

In addition to being a recipient of the Foundation Fellowship, UGA’s premier undergraduate scholarship, Paker is an inductee to the Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies. She has studied abroad at Oxford and in Tanzania, where she summited Mount Kilimanjaro in 2014.

“I am so excited to explore a new area of my field for the next two years,” said Paker. “With the Marshall Scholarship, I will become the best economist I can be. I can’t thank the Honors Program and my research mentors enough for their support.”

Paker has served as an Honors teaching assistant for first-year Honors students and is vice president of the UGA Economics Society. She leads a Girl Scout troop through Campus Scouts and hosts a weekly radio show on UGA’s student-run radio station, WUOG 90.5FM.

“Earning this prestigious honor is the byproduct of Meredith’s hard work in two different, but critical, arenas,” said Jessica Hunt, major scholarships coordinator in the UGA Honors Program. “Meredith has been committed to academic excellence, undergraduate research, and civic engagement throughout her four years at UGA, and she has also spent several months successfully navigating the arduous application and interview process. The Marshall award is a testament to her talent, her dedication to the field of economics, and her desire to positively impact local, national, and international communities.”

The Issue of “Elitism” in Honors Colleges and Programs

It is close to a given that whenever the subject of public university honors programs receives widespread attention in the media, many comments from readers point to the alleged unfairness–the “elitism”–of such programs.  Some readers, understandably, lament the disproportionate allocation of resources to a relatively small number of students, arguing that the resources should benefit all students.

Comments along these lines appeared most recently in response to Frank Bruni’s New York Times column on honors programs. The opening of the new Honors Living/Learning Residence at Rutgers Honors College likewise brought forth the expression of similar views.

First, as to the basic charge of elitism, the term clearly applies if it is used to characterize the official membership of highly qualified students in honors colleges and programs. In general, they are among the top 5-10 percent of the entire student body, based on high school gpa’s and standardized test scores.

Second, it is true that specific components of honors programs, especially honors “benefits,” serve to set honors students apart from the overall student body. Prominent among these benefits are special honors dorms and one form or another of priority registration for honors students. (But some honors programs, most notably those at Illinois and UW Madison, do not provide separate housing because of a conscious effort to avoid charges of elitism.)

Third, all honors programs offer smaller class sections to their students, especially during the first and second years of study. In order to provide these sections, academic departments must sacrifice “production” ratios in the interest of staffing these smaller classes.

If Professor A normally teaches three sections of microeconomics, each with an enrollment of 100, and then replaces one of these with an honors section of 20 students, the production ratios of both Professor A and the econ department are a little less impressive in the provost’s eyes. The emphasis on “productivity” in public universities has become a sort of mantra in the eyes of many critics of state universities.

After conceding the above, the justification of special treatment actually depends on  (1) whether public honors programs yield sufficient benefit to the whole university to warrant the emphasis they receive; (2) whether their target audience–honors students–really deserves special support, as do other groups (athletes, under-represented ethnic and geographical groups, low-income students, first-generation students, students requiring remedial classes); (3) whether the state and region benefit enough from the continuing presence of honors students; and (4) whether honors programs fill a need by providing slots for high-achieving students, in the absence of a sufficient number of places at, well, elite colleges.

The fact is, many honors colleges and programs allow motivated and proven non-honors students to take honors classes. As Penn State Schreyer Dean Christian Brady wrote in a recent article on this site, honors can be a “gateway” to transfer and non-honors students who find, after their first year or two in college, that they want to embrace greater challenges.

Similarly, the University of Georgia’s Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities, though under the banner of the school’s outstanding honors program, actually serves any undergraduate who wants to join in the excitement and promise of undergrad research. Another excellent program, Honors Carolina at UNC Chapel Hill, invites non-honors students with a strong academic record to participate in honors classes.

Dr. Jeffrey Chamberlain, Director of the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, agrees with Dean Brady at Schreyer that “Honors raises the game for the whole university. I am told repeatedly how good it is to have Honors students in non-Honors classes (and Honors students never take all of their classes in Honors).  Furthermore, Honors students help non-Honors students in every imaginable way—Honors students are math and science tutors, writing consultants, even RAs, so they contribute to student success across the board.” And, by the way, at a savings to the university.

Some states, such as South Carolina and Alabama, look to honors colleges to attract bright students to the state–and to keep such students from leaving the state to attend college. Avoiding a brain drain from a state or a region is, in its own way, an effort to maintain equity and to support and sustain the state’s economy.

Finally, what should a student do if there is a shortage of places at highly selective colleges and the student has the same credentials as those who are lucky enough to enter the selective schools? We have shown that, despite what some observers claim, there really are not enough places in public and private colleges for all the brightest students in this nation. Is it not fair–equitable, even–to provide places in public honors programs?

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.

Thoughts on NY Times Letters about Honors Colleges

Honors News: August 25, 2015

Below are excerpts from two letters to the editor published by the New York Times in response to Frank Bruni’s positive August 9 column about honors colleges and programs. Again, our thanks to Mr. Bruni for his kind remarks about A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs and for his support of honors colleges and programs as a strong option for talented students. Our comments follow both excerpts.

To the Editor:

“Frank Bruni argues correctly that honors colleges at many public universities give students the chance to get a superb education at a moderate price (“A Prudent College Path,” column, Aug. 9). But he might have expanded his argument further in addressing the value of honors colleges as they have evolved in recent years at private as well as public universities.

“Contrary to the general belief that an honors college is an elitist program for only the best students, many honors colleges now offer an array of intellectual and cultural resources to all students who choose to take advantage of them…

“Some of our programs are open only to the highest-achieving students, but others — involving research, fellowship mentoring and interdisciplinary coursework — are open to all. These programs allow students to receive a wide-ranging liberal arts education while still completing a focused major and preparing for the workplace or graduate school.”

PAULA MARANTZ COHEN
Dean, Pennoni Honors College
Drexel University
Philadelphia

To the Editor:

“Honors programs for a select few at public universities institutionalize blatant academic elitism and hypocrisy rather than diminish them. All college courses should be ‘honors courses,’ demanding and providing rigorous academic and intellectual experiences for everyone who attends college…

“Rather than casting 80 percent of the student body overboard into an intellectually mediocre classroom environment, reel back these students so that they, too, can experience what the university considers the best for the best.”

PHIL AVILLO
York, Pa.
The writer is emeritus professor of history at York College of Pennsylvania.

Responses:

Dean Cohen is correct in saying that many honors colleges and programs in private universities such as Drexel are essential for giving talented students an opportunity to participate in honors-specific courses and experiences, while also providing access to undergraduate research, fellowship mentoring, and even access to some honors classes.

The same is true of honors programs in public universities. An outstanding example is the University of Georgia Honors Program, which oversees the Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO), a highly effective vehicle for promoting research excellence for all undergraduates, not just honors students. It is no coincidence that UGA, mainly through its honors program and research emphasis, is one of the national leaders in producing Goldwater Scholars. These outstanding undergraduates in the STEM disciplines are often selected later on for prestigious postgraduate scholarships.

Professor Avillo suggests that honors colleges and programs are guilty of “blatant elitism” and take resources away from the overall student population. This is a familiar attack on honors programs, and of course he is correct in saying that honors programs require extra university resources to provide smaller class sections for honors students, honors residence halls, and other special programs. And in some cases, honors students may be considered “elite” in a negative way. The question is: are these extra efforts justifiable?

(Here’s a great article on our site by Dean Christian Brady of Penn State’s renowned Schreyer Honors College. Dean Brady describes how honors programs can become more egalitarian and benefit the whole university.)

It is our view that the two main justifications for honors colleges and programs:

1. Most public and private honors programs at major universities require applicants to have very strong high school gpa’s along with standardized test scores in the top 8-9% nationwide. Our research suggests that in the current battle among colleges to enhance their selectivity profiles, many of these bright students are not finding places in the most elite private institutions.

In order for these students to find a learning environment that, in some ways, offers classes and other experiences that resemble those in elite colleges. Without the thousands of slots for these students in both public and private honors programs, the students would likely succeed anyway–but would they be challenged, or find a group with similar interests as freshmen, or go on to the best graduate and professional schools?

2. If you are one of the students described above and find that your dream private college has rejected you for whatever mystical reason, would you want to travel hundreds or thousands of miles and pay higher tuition to find a college that will offer you the challenges and opportunities you need, indeed deserve based on your qualifications? If given the right option, would you stay in your home state, or at least nearby?

Most students would say yes. And, sometimes, their state legislatures would like for them to stay in-state in order to avoid the “brain drain” that occurs when such students cannot find the type of education they desire in their home state. The fact is that no state right now, and probably in the foreseeable future, can magically create a UC Berkeley, Michigan, UCLA, UVA, UNC Chapel Hill, or a William & Mary. Or a UW Madison, Washington, UT Austin, or Illinois. But a state can, with additional support from donors, build honors colleges and programs.

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.