William and Mary Creates an Inclusive Path to “Highest Honors”

The William and Mary Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience: Excellence with a Mind Towards Equity, by Anne H. Charity Hudley, Cheryl Dickter, and Hannah Franz of The College of William and Mary. ahchar@wm.edu

Editor’s Note: On other pages, we note that the College of William and Mary, like UC Berkeley, does not have a separate honors college. The entire college could be considered an “honors” experience given the relatively small size of the undergraduate population and the record of high achievement that every student brings to the campus. But while other public institutions pursue an honors path that to some extent separates honors students from non-honors students, especially during the first two years of study, the William and Mary Scholars Program seeks out students who can benefit from more inclusiveness and participation. Read more from the authors, below….

In 2014, U.S. News & World Report listed the College of William and Mary as the top public institution with a strong commitment to undergraduate teaching. In 2013, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reported that William and Mary had the smallest gap between white and black students’ graduation rates of all public institutions.

From 2003-2013, William and Mary has been successful in increasing the diversity of our undergraduate student body, growing from 14% students of color in 2001 to 30% today, including 7.1% Black or African American students and 9.1% Hispanic/Latin students. One contributor to this achievement is the William and Mary Scholars Award. This award was established in 2002, and uses institutional resources to provide over forty in-state merit scholarships per enrolling class to academically distinguished students who have overcome unusual adversity and/or are members of groups who contribute to campus diversity.

In addition to academic merit, the selection process for William and Mary Scholars takes into account consideration of diversity, adversity and financial need. The William and Mary Scholars Award has been successful in drawing outstanding students to the College of William and Mary. In the past five years, two of the five Ann Callahan Chappell Award winners for the most outstanding Phi Beta Kappa initiate at The College of William and Mary were African-American women who were William and Mary Scholars.

By taking into account both academic achievement and the lingering impact of educational inequality, William and Mary is able to address Frank Bruni’s observation–that “honors colleges in some ways replicate, within a public school, the kind of stratified, status-conscious dynamic at play in the hierarchy of private schools”–by attracting strong students without furthering the divide. (The Bruni column was generally supportive of honors colleges.)

In order to fully support students chosen for the scholarship and to provide even greater access for students who are historically underrepresented, The William and Mary Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience (WMSURE) was created in 2010. This program provides formalized mentoring, programming, and increased research opportunities in order to nurture the academic skills and leadership potential of all students at the College of William and Mary, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds. While the program supports the William and Mary Scholars, it is not exclusive to only them.

WMSURE provides weekly workshops and comprehensive advising and mentoring on a regular basis, all of which engage scholars throughout all four years of their college experience. The program has several unique features when compared to honors programs at other universities.

First, the program is led by tenured faculty with noted reputations for research excellence, which provides students with consistent advising and mentoring relationships with faculty at the college who are knowledgeable about many different areas of academic achievement and can help to demystify the academy for the scholars.

Second, the program is also personalized around each student’s academic and professional goals, with a focus on finding the right resources for each student based on their individual research and academic interests.

Finally, WMSURE is research-based, in that data are consistently collected regarding students’ academic and personal needs to ensure that appropriate programming and services are provided and to measure academic and social success and challenges. Our evidence shows that prior to the creation of WMSURE, underrepresented students were less informed about research at William and Mary, were less likely to engage in research, and were less likely to have a mentor.

Today on our campus, students who participate in WMSURE are more likely to engage in research, more likely to consider graduate school, feel more supported, are more likely to have an articulated mentor, and are more likely to feel supported in their academic endeavors.

What Students Face

Underrepresented students face multiple challenges which may affect their access to academic success upon arriving on campus, including solo status, stereotype threat, impostor syndrome, colorism, and microaggressions. In WMSURE, we address these challenges for underrepresented scholars in the academy. In particular, we detail how such experiences can negatively impact academic performance, self-esteem, overall well-being, and sense of belonging. Then, we give students multiple tools for use in confronting challenges in a comprehensive manner that attends to both academic and social needs. We have an emphasis on community-based learning and using research for the public good.

The Office of Admissions makes decisions about the William and Mary Scholar Award. But we tell students: If you receive a William and Mary Scholarship award, you should be proud of your accomplishments and all that you bring to the William and Mary community. But we also recognize that achievements in high school and standardized test scores do not even begin to tell your story. What makes you WMSURE? You do. The fact that you are here at William and Mary, one of the top ten public universities in the country makes you WMSURE. How do you become part of WMSURE? You just have to show up!

And show up they do. We see between 20-40 people at our weekly workshops, and just as many appear in WMSURE faculty office hours, in lab meetings, in dress rehearsals, and in other campus activities.

Our inclusive approach mitigates the gatekeeper effect and under-matching—students who could have been in honors or more challenging courses, or at a magnet school—but were not referred or declined to attend them because they received inaccurate or incomplete information.

WMSURE students have published with faculty, written honors theses, presented at national and international conferences, and contributed to books, including the book Highest Honors that is being written by WMSURE program chairs Anne Charity Hudley and Cheryl Dickter, along with graduate assistant Hannah Franz, so that more students may be privy to the insights of the undergraduate hidden curriculum, the unwritten and often unintended lessons that students learn in college.

Highest Honors: A Guide to Undergraduate Research prepares students for undergraduate research in college. The text is designed to help students take full advantage of the academic resources and experiences that the university setting has to offer so that students will actively be on the path to achieving highest honors/summa cum laude. The book is designed to appeal to all first and second year college students and as such, has a specific focus on the experiences of students who are underrepresented in the academy. Highest Honors provides students with detailed research-based tools that will prepare them for the social and academic transition from high school classes to college research.

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