Elmhurst College In Depth

Smart Choice

The Honors Program means plenty of study, intense dialog, and a genuine sense of community.

One morning last spring, Assistant Professor of Psychology Pat Ackles walked into his classroom in the basement of Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel and, before he could say a word, a student had raised his hand to ask a question.

“I know our paper isn’t due until Monday, but I’m finished early,” the student asked. “Can I turn it in now?”

Unpacking at the front of the room, Ackles stopped and grinned. “You must be really confident,” he said, “or really excited about the assignment.”

Ackles’ class is a seminar in the Honors Program, where student confidence and excitement are a specialty. The Honors Program offers a select but rapidly expanding group of students distinctive courses and seminars, independent research projects, and a variety of academic enrichments on campus and beyond. It is designed for the most high-achieving, highly motivated students. That means the classroom discussions flow faster, the student projects are more ambitious, and the deadlines tend to be flexible, though not in the customary direction.

In Ackles’ seminar, class participation doesn’t mean just raising a hand during discussions. He asks students to review each other’s papers for writing style and content, for example, and assign a grade. “The idea is that you learn best by teaching,” he says. “It gives the students insight into their own work and how it could be better. They’re very earnest about it. They take the responsibility seriously.”

For one assignment, Ackles’ students read articles on a topic such as bipolar disorder, taken from both professional journals and popular magazines, and prepare critiques on the articles. “You’ll hear people say that freshmen aren’t ready to be reading articles in scholarly journals,” Ackles says, “but they do a pretty good job of it. They get good at picking out the hypothesis and the weaknesses in an article. They get better as the semester goes on. We put responsibility on them, and they respond.”

“These are interested and interesting students,” says Mary Kay Mulvaney, an associate professor of English and director of the Honors Program. “We expect them to take responsibility for their education.”

Under Mulvaney’s stewardship, the Honors Program has grown dramatically. Not so long ago, the number of first-year students enrolled in the program could be counted on both hands. Under Mulvaney’s leadership, the number jumped to 39 in 2004 and to 63 a year later. This fall, 80 first-year students joined the program, bringing the total number of students participating to nearly 200. The program’s success earned it a prominent mention in an influential guidebook, Peterson’s Smart Choices.

The burgeoning program is having an impact on the academic life of the College as a whole. “I think Honors Program students become role models for the other students,” says Professor Mulvaney. “They take on leadership roles on campus. They raise the level of performance across the board. We’re attracting more high achievers to the College and adding to the intellectual vibrancy on campus.”

Honors classes like Pat Ackles’ are meant to be interactive and discussion-based, with little lecturing. Consequently, students carry a bigger load in the classroom. During a discussion last spring, Ackles had every student in the class pitching into the debate. It’s a learning style that absolutely requires engagement. “Everyone likes that the classes are discussion-based,” says Heather Michaels, a student in Ackles’ class. “But that also means that you really have to prepare.”

Beyond the classroom, the Honors Program provides students with opportunities to work with faculty on research projects, to meet in small groups with visiting scholars and prominent campus speakers, and to experience opera, theatre and other cultural productions, often for the first time.

Last year, for example, a group of Honors students read Collapse, the author Jared Diamond’s acclaimed examination of the way environmental factors shape civilizations. Then four of the students had dinner with the author before he lectured on campus. The students “were pretty star struck, pretty nervous,” says Assistant Professor Rich Schultz, who organized the event. “But they asked good questions. It was a great opportunity.”

Other Honors students have met with public figures such as David Gergen, an advisor to presidents from Nixon to Clinton, and Sister Helen Prejean, a noted author and opponent of the death penalty. Professor Kevin Olson took students in his Introduction to Western Music course to productions at the Lyric Opera. Each November, Honors students are regulars at the Chicago Humanities Festival, where prominent artists, scholars, performers, and policy makers gather at the city’s cultural institutions to advance and celebrate ideas.

Service projects are another part of the Honors Program experience. Students in Mulvaney’s Humane Values in Literature course worked with third-graders at Glen Hill School in Glendale Heights. Each college student paired off with a third-grader, reading with their younger counterparts and helping them to prepare their own books. Other Honors students prepared welcome packages and met with refugee families from Somalia who were trying to make new homes in Chicago. “It’s one of the ways the program expands the students’ horizons at every level,” says Mulvaney.

Juniors in the Honors Program conduct an independent research project, working closely with a professor in their major field. Music major Dan Moroz composed a score for an independent film that won honors at a festival. After directing a student production of Steel Magnolias, theatre major Chris Pazdernik researched the play’s history and range of production styles. Through the Swords Scholar Grant, the College provides funding for selected research projects. Students present their findings at the annual Research and Performance Showcase in May.

For many students in the Honors Program, one of the biggest benefits is the shared sense of community it fosters. The program starts each fall with a retreat in Wisconsin. “It’s your first chance to get to know the people with whom you’ll be taking classes over the next few years,” says Jenn Kosciw, a sophomore and president of ECHO, the Elmhurst College Honors Organization. “It’s where we establish the connection.”

It’s a connection, Kosciw says, based as much on a willingness to get involved as it is on academic achievement. “It’s a different atmosphere in an Honors class,” she says. “Everyone shares a common goal. The biggest misconception about Honors classes is that they’re more difficult. That’s not necessarily true. It’s not a greater workload, but you are expected to get involved in class and make use of the freedom you’re given. In the end, education is up to you. It depends on how much you put into it.”

Elmhurst first offered an honors program in the mid-1960s. For a number of years, the program languished under a lack of budget support. “Thirty years ago, we had an honors program but it was not really operational,” says Earl Swallow, a veteran professor of physics. With Professor of English Robert Swords, who had helped to establish the program, Swallow worked to resus- citate it in the 1970s, but honors enrollments remained low. Swallow recalls as few as four students participating in some years.

Through the lean times, Swallow remained an advocate of honors education. “It’s important to provide an extra challenge for high-achieving students,” he says. Like others who teach honors classes, he says the biggest difference is students’ willingness to take responsibility in the classroom. “You can count on them having done the reading. You can count on them coming in with questions and comments ready. You don’t have to struggle to generate discussion.”

Students in any major can apply to the Honors Program. The College invites applications from incoming freshmen who are offered either a Presidential or a Dean’s Scholarship. Transfer and enrolled students with distinguished academic records also may apply to the program.

Students join the Honors Program for a variety of reasons. Many are products of high school honors or advanced placement systems, and following an honors path in college seems like the logical next step. Several students said they liked the idea of being recognized as Honors Scholars on their diplomas and transcripts. “It’s a chance to stand apart, a rock to stand on,” is how Sean Kennedy, a pre-med student, put it.

The program also comes with perks. Last spring, for example, Mulvaney invited her Honors students to a two-day conference on leadership at the Doubletree Hotel in Downers Grove. She had planned to limit the event to twenty students, but the demand forced her to include thirty. Dressed in their best business casual, the students spent the two days in a conference room discussing case studies, trying to define leadership, assessing their own aptitudes as leaders, and brainstorming ways to take the lead in addressing needs on campus and beyond. The discussion was typically earnest and wide-ranging, taking in everything from plans for a new Honors Program lounge to ways to address pervasive poverty. (They also got to hang out at the hotel pool.)

Perhaps the most revealing moment came when the students began assembling a wish-list of initiatives they could tackle in the fall. One in particular sparked intense discussion: “Why can’t there be some place on campus we can go to study after the library closes?” a student asked.

The general hum of agreement from the other students in the room indicated that the problem was one that deserved attention. And so, at the easel at the front of the room, Mulvaney wrote the words, “place for late-night studying.” The consensus, in this room full of Honors students, was clear: It never hurts to do a little bit extra.

Photo By Tom Lindfors

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