Head of the Class
Founding Classmates of Honors Program Relish Opportunity
Matthew Metz strides down the hall and turns into his next class with excitement and confidence. He’s ready for a healthy debate and has every right to be sure of himself. After all, The University of Texas at Tyler freshmanis head of the class.
But so is Levi, Christopher, Jessica, Bradley, Joey, Jarrett, Ethan, Virginia … and the list goes on. In fact, all 20 students in the classroom are high achievers.
In the fall of 2009, UT Tyler welcomed these quality students into the charter freshman class of the university’s brand new Honors Program. For many, the new program played a big role in their decision to become a Patriot.
Top students like Bradley Pennington had no shortage of choices for higher education after high school. “But the Honors Program helped me to make my final decision,” the elementary education major from Arlington said. “When I got my acceptance letter, it was like everything had fallen into place.”
Alicia Gackle, a nursing major from Flower Mound, said, “Honestly, the Honors Program was a large part of my decision to attend UT Tyler from the beginning. I thought it was really neat to be able to be a part of something that was brand new to the university.”
A political science major from Newton, Metz echoed the others’ sentiments. “It was a chance to challenge myself,” he said.
Metz considered another school seriously, but said the opportunity to join the UT Tyler Honors Program was a deciding factor.
However, Metz and others said the Honors Program wasn’t the only draw to the UT Tyler campus.
“I loved the feeling I got when I arrived on campus for my first visit,” Pennington said. “Everyone was extremely helpful and I could tell that it was a university where I could be me.”
Gackle said she liked that Tyler was not too far from her hometown and was smaller than many public schools in Texas.
Up to the Challenge
Once on campus, the inaugural students of the Honors Program hit the ground running. For the first two years, honors students meet for a core curriculum “seminar” each semester that combines two disciplines within the university under a singular focus. The course is team-taught by two professors from the different fields of study.
For example, the fall honors seminar combined world literature and political science under the theme, “The Hero and the City.” Dr. Paul Streufert, Honors Program director and associate professor of literature and languages, shared teaching duties with Dr. Randy LeBlanc, associate professor and graduate advisor in political science.
Gackle said the interdisciplinary, team-taught class concept is unique and exciting. “Our program works to prepare us for life in the real world just as much as it challenges us academically,” she said.
“Our entire first semester was about civilians’ involvement in the community, and how our actions impact people and the community in so many different ways. Dr. Streufert found ancient literature to include in our class work throughout the semester that applied these concepts to life in the past and present. This tie between academia and real life has really made our Honors Program one of a kind.”
Metz said, “The class is very different and very challenging from other classes. It is loosely structured with more one-on-one time with teachers. You can actually get questions answered. You’re not just a face in the crowd. I think it helps us to think more critically and not just memorize and regurgitate information for exams. We have to be able to answer creatively and give and take on different views. Being able to look at things creatively and critically will help me explore different viewpoints.”
The flow of ideas and commitment to excellence are traits these high-caliber students crave.
Levi Herrera, an English major from Lindale, said, “The honors class is much more challenging than anything I’ve been through in any sort of educational setting. It is challenging my writing ability and changed the way I think through and plan papers. It has prohibited me from falling back on irrelevant subject matter. I have to think things through, be concise and have an opinion.”
Pennington said, “(The assignments) force you to take in many different perspectives and then argue the one that you believe is the best. The program has benefited me more than I ever expected. Honors has allowed me to question and share my opinions on things about which that I normally would have stayed quiet. I feel that the program is allowing me to become a more well-rounded student.”
A CLOSE-KNIT GROUP
Participants say one of the biggest benefits of the honors program is the smaller community of students and professors.
“I have always been in honors classes, but our Honors Program here at UT Tyler is different,’’ Pennington said. “I am able to share my ideas with the other students more than I ever was in my past experiences. Whereas high school honors classes promoted more individual learning, our Honors Program allows for more team learning.” He said the small number of students in the program “allows us as students to grow together and get to know each other.”
Metz said, “At UT Tyler, class size is much smaller anyway. I’m already getting to know professors and you can actually talk to the professor outside of class. Also, I’m beginning to recognize other people in several of my classes so I don’t feel like I’m alone.’’
Herrera said the size of the group has a lot to do with success. “In college with 40 to 50 students in your English class and 140 students in Texas politics, there is not much room for interaction with the teacher or even other students,” he said. “But in the honors class, we are a small group. We mesh together really well. We’ve become friendly and that helps the learning atmosphere and environment.”
The students also say they challenge each other to do better.
“The most challenging thing about the program so far is just doing your best 24/7. It’s a fast-paced classroom, and you have to focus at all times in order to make the grades you want,” Gackle said. “I’ve been in honors classes since kindergarten, and it is always weird for me to go back to regular classes. There is just a drive to learn between students in honors classes that you don’t find within a regular classroom. It’s nice to have an entire classroom so dedicated to learning the material and maintaining good grades.”
But she said the UT Tyler program, while challenging, also leaves room for the students to enjoy the full college experience.
“Most honors programs have so many stringent requirements on dress code, class work and living arrangements. It’s nice to experience a system that rewards you for your academic achievements without changing your experience as a college student completely. We still like to have fun and goof off just as much as everyone else. It is nice to have the freedom to do so.”
A Foundation for Excellence
The best and brightest students often find themselves traveling in unchartered territories. So it’s no surprise that UT Tyler’s honors class members relish the opportunity to leave their stamp on the new program.
“We are the first ones and do feel experimental,” Herrera said. “It is exciting. I joined because I enjoy something different.”
Students in this first honors class said they feel honored to help lay the groundwork for future classes and even an Honors College someday.
Gackle said she wants to help make the program a success for future students. “I really do feel a responsibility to start this program correctly so that other students will love it as much as we do. It’s really neat to be able to talk to Dr. Streufert about ideas we have for the program – things to change, things to keep the same – in order to make this program the best it can be. He is so open to anything we put on the table. We have a say, and that’s rare in any college program. Hopefully we can make this program just as great for next year’s class.”
Said Pennington, “I feel like the success of the program rides on this inaugural class, but it is a lot less of a burden to bear when you have 19 others helping you.”
It’s that passion and desire for excellence that has driven these students straight to head of the class.
Members of UT Tyler’s Inaugural Honors Program
The students, and their hometowns and majors, are:
Shehzad Batliwala, Tyler, biology and chemistry
Jarrett Campbell, Bonham, mechanical engineering
Bradley Carter, Houston, civil engineering
Michael Clarke, Big Spring, computer science
Joey Cronin, Celina, civil engineering
Alicia Gackle, Flower Mound, biology
Thomas Getz, Tyler, biology
Levi Herrera, Lindale, English
Ethan LaPlante, Barrie, Ontario, Canada, finance
Matthew Metz, Newton, political science
Virginia Murphy, Ovilla, major undecided
Bradley Pennington, Arlington, elementary education
Christopher Pierce, Forney, mechanical engineering
Austin Regan, Abilene, mechanical engineering
Brandon Reynolds, Martin’s Mill, biology
Nathan Smith, Tyler, biology
Samuel Stevens, Harmony, major undecided
Heather Swearengen, Shelbyville, chemistry
Baylee Talaska, San Antonio, health and kinesiology
Jessica Woodruff, Liberty City, science education