Honors Testimonials: UNC Honors Carolina

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

Rachel Myrick, Political Science & Global Studies Double Major–Honors Carolina has given me an opportunity to study with incredible professors in small classes, and to engage in academic experiences that extend far beyond the classroom. Looking back on my college experience, I realize that Honors Carolina opened so many doors for me. Without those opportunities, I would never have been in a position to win a Rhodes Scholarship.

Sam Bondurant, English & Economics Double Major–From joining my professor at his home to use his personal printing press to seeing firsthand the landmarks that inspired J.R.R. Tolkein in Oxfordshire, Honors Carolina has brought me unique experiences that have indelibly shaped my UNC experience.

Emma Blackwell, Mathematics & Geology Double MajorI love that Carolina is a large university, but one of the things I valued most about Honors Carolina was that it gave me a community I could be part of the minute I stepped on campus. Honors Carolina really helped me feel more at home in my first semester.

John Hu, Business & Computer Science Double Major–Honors Carolina opened a lot of doors for me. It helped me make meaningful connections with people who were very open and enthusiastic about helping me prepare for the employment recruiting process because of our shared experience. I’m extremely grateful to the Honors Carolina network for getting me to where I am today.

Jerma Jackson, Associate Professor of History–My most rewarding teaching experience at the University was in an Honors Carolina course. Students consistently posed such thoughtful questions that the course became an exhilarating teaching — and, indeed, learning — experience for me.

Ashley Rivenbark, Asian Studies & Romance Languages Double Major–It’s almost impossible to sum up the incredible experience that the Weir Fellowship provides. If you want top notch academics, amazing teachers, and classmates who will guide you every step of the way in your Chinese improvement, a vibrant colorful city with delicious food and warmhearted people, and an internship experience that will leave you with powerful impressions and lasting connections, then you have to apply for the Weir Fellowship.


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 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, many of them on the political right.

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 former 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. (Dr. Brady is now Dean of the new Lewis Honors College at the University of Kentucky.)

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, Dean of the Hicks Honors College at the University of North Florida, agrees with Dean Brady 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.

UNC Chapel Hill Honors Students Win Eight Major Awards in 2012-2013

Editor’s Note: The following is from UNC Chapel Hill:

The 2012-2013 academic year has been fruitful for students who participated in Honors Carolina offerings and pursued national scholarships. Honors Carolina student Rachel Myrick won the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship last fall, and seven other students joined her this spring as winners of distinguished scholarships and awards.

Will Leimenstoll is one of UNC’s two 2013 Luce Scholar Program winners. His Honors Study Abroad semester in Cape Town, South Africa played a key role in fostering an interest in urban planning that he will continue in Asia. Henry Ross is UNC’s second 2013 Luce winner. He is an Honors Carolina student studying classics and criminal law who hopes to learn more about legal systems in Asia during the coming year.

Kelsey Jost-Creegan is a 2013 Humanity in Action Fellow. She is an Honors Carolina student who explored her interests in migration and human rights through Honors Carolina courses.

Akhil Jariwala was selected as a 2013 Udall Scholar. He plans to utilize the experiences gained as an Honors Carolina student studying business and environment to integrate clean technology solutions across the globe. Patrick Short is the 40th Goldwater Scholar from UNC. He is an Honors Carolina student who served as a coordinator for ten classes in Honors Carolina’s C-START program and is double majoring in applied and computational mathematics and biology.

Will Lindsey recently became UNC 30th Truman Scholar. He is an Honors Carolina student and a history and political science double major who studied Shakespeare during his Honors Summer in London and Oxford. Will seeks to attend graduate school for public policy and law.

Alex Caprara is the 2013 UNC winner of the Beinecke Scholarship. He is an Honors Carolina student who discovered his love for classics in an Honors seminar. Alex will delve further into the field with this graduate award.

These eight students discovered and stoked their interests with the support and resources offered by Honors Carolina.

UNC Chapel Hill Honors Theses: A Big Plus for Careers

However much we dislike college rankings that equate quality with “outcomes” such as the highest salaries or mention in Who’s Who, practical considerations are a major part of almost every student’s plans.

The story below by Dana Blohm of the Daily Tar Heel describes how students writing senior honors theses at UNC Chapel Hill have their eyes on research and on the future.

By Dana Blohm
April 11, 2012

Abby Lewis spent her summer doing research for her honors thesis. But instead of heading to Wilson Library, she went to Paris.

While it might be an unconventional way to research for the extensive project, the senior said she was able to analyze unpublished French memoirs, reaching past what she would have been able to accomplish just at UNC.

“To go abroad by myself was challenging, but it was rewarding to have that experience,” she said.

About 340 seniors chose to write honors theses this year, with the most coming from the psychology department, said Jessie DeHainaut, program assistant for Honors Carolina.

In recent weeks, students have been presenting their final theses and defending them against panels.

Senior economics major Jamie Isetts said students must be passionate about their topics to complete the challenging process.

“The most difficult part was realizing how to balance what you wanted to do and what I was able to do with the resources I had,” Isetts said.

Several seniors said they were forced to change their topics due to unforeseeable circumstances.

“I came into it with a clear idea about what I wanted to write and that set me back in a lot of ways,” Lewis said. “Once I stepped back and saw what I had, there was a different paper there.”

Assistant director of University Career Services Laura Lane said students benefit from writing theses in a number of ways.

Lane said writing an honors thesis helps to develop the number one skills employers are looking for — communication.

“For anyone contemplating going into academia, it’s a must,” said economics professor Mike Aguilar, an honors theses adviser.

Many honors thesis students also commented on reaching a new level of research that they were unable to learn in school.

“I think writing my thesis definitely helped me get into graduate school because I can say that I’ve already done in-depth research,” Lewis said.

Students must choose an adviser in their department. Many had relationships with their advisers before starting their theses. “It really helps to know the student ahead of time,” Aguilar said.

Professor Tim Carter said he gets as much out of advising students as they get from him.
“It’s a fabulous opportunity to engage in cutting edge information with a smart student,” he said. “It’s one of the best parts of our jobs as faculty members.”

Senior Chris Nickell, who has Carter as an adviser, said the end product is worth all the work. “To see an argument take shape, and to now have the capacity to talk about the topic on a new level is really rewarding,” he said.

But Isetts said students’ motivations should be genuine, and not just for the recognition.
“Don’t do this honors thesis unless you do it for yourself,” she said.

“Don’t do it to get the honors or it will be a soul-sucking process. It’s for you, so make it your own.”