Anatomy of an Honors Program
UT Tyler Creates Niche Program With Quality, Potential
When leaders at The University of Texas at Tyler set their sights on an honors program for the university, they wanted to create something unique and of the highest quality. The goal was to establish a program that would attract highly motivated students.
“An honors program is essential if we want to attract higher-ability students,” said Dr. Peter J. Fos, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “Many high-ability students are leaving East Texas for universities in other parts of the state, as well as outside the state. Once they leave, they typically don’t return. We are trying to do our part to keep the best and brightest here in East Texas,’’ he said.
“These students are a part of the student population, but they need an honors program to challenge them. The Honors Program is designed to do just that, meet their demand to be challenged.”
The first step was to design a curriculum that would attract top students from across the region, the state and beyond. Dr. Fos said that vital foundation was established by a committee of deans and faculty who researched other programs and incorporated the best elements into something fresh for UT Tyler.
“In the summer of 2008, we began discussing the possibilities,” Dr. Fos said. “A faculty advisory committee began work in September of 2008 and on December 1 of that year, we received the proposal. (UT Tyler President) Dr. (Rodney) Mabry and the cabinet approved it, we asked Dr. (Paul) Streufert to head it up and we hit the ground running.”
The new UT Tyler Honors Program, which launched with its first class of 20 students last fall, offers tomorrow’s engineers, doctors, nurses, writers, political leaders, teachers and entrepreneurs an opportunity to explore differing viewpoints, form educated opinions, enjoy smaller classroom environments and be mentored by faculty.
The unique program includes core honor seminar courses, an honors colloquium series, contract courses and honors theses.
Dr. Paul D. Streufert, Honors Program director and associate professor of literature and languages, said smaller classes that are team-taught make up one of the most exciting elements of the program. “Team teaching is not easy, but a great challenge. And these are students who like a challenge. When you go into the room with 21 other smart people and see what everyone comes up with, it’s exciting.”
Dr. Streufert said, “We could have made the program simple, but not nearly as interesting and thought-provoking. I believe it shows we are committed to doing excellent work.”
Dr. Fos said, “We have taken good points from other programs and tried to be distinctive in Texas. Our uniqueness is that we are very interdisciplinary.”
While honors students meet the requirements for their own specific departmental major within the university’s offerings, unique and challenging seminar courses replace several courses in the university’s core curriculum. These core courses are unique because they are team-taught by two university professors and they are interdisciplinary.
Dr. Streufert said. “We keep the honors students together for four semesters during their first and second year. The honors classes count for the university’s core curriculum. Professors from different disciplines look at a problem or issue from different viewpoints with the students.”
For the first fall semester, Dr. Streufert team-taught with Dr. Randy LeBlanc, associate professor and graduate adviser in the Department of Political Science. The theme was “The Hero and the City,” which offers an interdisciplinary look at cities – from both political and literary perspectives.
Dr. Streufert said, “We’ve been looking at the stories humankind has been telling itself about cities. What makes a good city? What are the problems inherent in a city? What does the state owe the citizens and the citizens owe the state?”
For example, Dr. Streufert said the students read and analyzed the oldest existing literary narrative in history, “The Epic of Gilgamesh,’’ a 4,000-year-old text about a young king who learns how to rule.
“We are asking the students to look at a particular problem or issue from different viewpoints,” Dr. Streufert said. “The class generates great conversations … it is a laboratory of interpretation and philosophy.”
Dr. LeBlanc said, “The students are uniformly bright, energetic and motivated. Even when they don’t think the course material will speak to them, it does and they respond. They relish challenge and soak up information. They seem genuinely to enjoy the honors environment, which is one of cooperation and support. The students have taken advantage of the opportunities that the program provides for shared experiences inside and outside the classroom.”
Other interdisciplinary courses throughout the program will include a class that combines rhetoric through speaking and writing, interdisciplinary social sciences and even an interdisciplinary math and science courses.
The core of the program is not only designed to stimulate a pursuit of excellence in the students, but in the faculty as well, Dr. Fos said.
Dr. Streufert agreed: “It is good for the faculty, too, to see a topic from another perspective.”
Dr. LeBlanc said, “It has been a pleasure teaching the honors course. Watching an exceptional colleague ply his trade, collaborating on course materials and presentation, cooperating across disciplinary boundaries and giving and receiving support has been a rewarding professional and personal experience. I would not miss the opportunity to teach in the Honors Program again and again!”
Contract Courses and a Thesis
As upperclassmen, honors students branch out into more individualized and independent study within their own major. During their junior year, students are charged with creating a “contract course” agreement with a professor in their field. It is honors work within their discipline.
“The student contacts a professor of one of the classes in which he or she has a particular interest,” Dr. Streufert said. “The student then goes that extra mile in that course. That may mean writing more extensive papers or helping with research.’’
Hopefully, the contract coursework for each student will develop into an idea or project for a thesis, which is the focus of the final year, Dr. Streufert said.
This part of the curriculum gives honors students an even closer working relationship with top faculty in their field.
“It’s about mentorship,” Dr. Streufert said. “We are helping to develop a relationship for the students and the faculty in their field. The faculty can be an example of how to live your life in a particular field and how to conduct one’s self professionally. And it helps the faculty as well. The students can help on research. And it is exciting to see a student curious and interested in your field.”
In addition to the honors classes each semester, students participate in four colloquium events each semester. In the series, students have the opportunity to meet and talk with locally, regionally and nationally known scholars and leaders about topics that relate to each semester’s course.
“It shows the life of the mind in a relaxed setting,” Dr. Streufert said.
In the fall, students met with speakers including Bill Ratliff, former Texas lieutenant governor; Dewane Hughes, UT Tyler associate professor of art; and Deborah Bell, UT Tyler clinical instructor in nursing and founder of the nonprofit organization Refuge International.
Dr. Streufert said one of the practical and tangible benefits of the Honors Program for students is the opportunity for scholarship.
“Every student in the honors program gets a scholarship, ranging from $1,000 to $7,000 (renewable up to four years) in addition to any scholarships they already receive from the university,” Dr. Streufert said. “We’re helping smart, interested, curious and motivated students get here to UT Tyler who may not be able to go here otherwise. The scholarship aspect shows that we are excited and committed to the students.”
Dr. Fos said he hopes that one day all students in the Honors Program will receive full scholarships.
James Vilade, UT Tyler director of athletics, said the Honors Program provides another tool for recruiting in the athletic department as well. “The Honors Program opens up another pool from which we can recruit for a student-athlete who has the desire to take part in a strong program that we offer,” he said.
UT Tyler is a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III, which does not permit athletic scholarships, so the Honors Program is something coaches keep in mind for high-performance students.
“The Honors Program allows us to involve a student athletically while rewarding them for their academics with a scholarship,” Coach Vilade said. “Our priority is to get that type of quality student.”
Students: The Final Piece of the Puzzle
Once the program and benefits were in place, UT Tyler opened up the application process to high performance students. The response was great. Dr. Streufert said they had many applicants.
“We are looking for highly talented and motivated students,” Dr. Streufert said. Students applying for a spot in the honors class must have at least a 3.5 high school GPA and an ACT composite score of at least 28 or an SAT composite score of at least 1860.
“We hope to create a well-balanced program with applicants from all five of the colleges within the university,” he said, adding that the group this year includes four student-athletes and majors from across the campus.
“The honors students are very diverse in their majors,” Dr. Streufert said. “Engineering is well-represented. We have students majoring in biology, chemistry, political science, English, education and business and finance. The goal for the program is an interdisciplinary program to accommodate many points of view and realms of experience.”
The Honors Program gives quality students an immediate community of other students. “They are accountable to each other and challenge each other,” Dr. Streufert said. “They challenge each other to be the best.”
The program director added, “We are hoping the presence of these honor students raises the bar for everyone – other students, faculty and even the administration.”
A Look at the Future
The goal of the program is to evolve into a full honors college, Dr. Fos said.
“We had 20 students in the program this year. Next it could be 30. Once we have a full four years of the Honors Program, we’ll have 100 to 120 honors students at one time on campus,’’ he said.
“It is new and growing and directly fits in with the mission of the university. We would like for it to become an honors college in the next five to 10 years. I wish we could take larger numbers of honors students, but we have to start slow. We are very pleased with the results so far,’’ Dr. Fos added.
“This is another way to let students in the region and state know about another aspect of the university,” he said. “I believe other students will see that we are serious about high-ability students and choose UT Tyler.”
The university is looking forward to welcoming a new class of Honors Program students in the fall.
Quick Facts on Honors
WHEN: Honors education in the United States first appeared in the 1920s. By the late 1930s, there were over 100 honors programs in the United States.
WHAT: A typical honors program offers a series of small classes or seminars, taught by the best faculty at the college, limited to students with superior academic abilities.
WHY: Honors programs are based on the belief that high-performance students profit from close contact with faculty and class discussions rather than lectures. It is a powerful recruiting tool for the best and brightest students.
HOW: Honors curriculum may include small courses, seminars, one-on-one instruction, course work shared with other gifted students, individual research projects, internships, foreign study, scholarships and campus or community service.
WHERE: There are honors programs at more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the country, compared to the more than 3,000 total colleges and universities in the U.S.
*Information from the National Collegiate Honors Council