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Honors program attracting more top students
(April 19, 1999)
he buildings in UConn's new South Campus residence complex are so new the builders were still putting the final touches on them when nearly 700 undergraduate students moved in last September.
But the 152 sophomores, juniors and seniors who live in Building A were pioneers in another sense, too. As honors students, they are the first generation of Huskies to occupy a residence facility exclusively for students in the honors program, and they know a good thing when they see it. The new South Campus residence halls offer some of the best residential facilities at any university in the country. Most of its units are four-person suites featuring two bedrooms, a living room and a bath. And they are so new you can still smell the paint.
South Campus is one of the jewels of the UConn 2000 program. In addition to residential space, the complex consolidates a number of other
facilities - general purpose rooms, media classrooms, a computer laboratory, a recreation room and community activity center, a ballroom and state-of-the-art dining facility, and administrative offices, and the offices of the Honors Program. It is the first time an academic program has been completely housed in a residence hall at UConn.
"The University is absolutely committed to attracting and retaining top students," says Michael Cutlip, director of the Honors Program. "It's a key goal of UConn 2000 and the importance of this development is to create an environment that will appeal to exceptional students and offer the space and proximity for other honors initiatives to take root."
"This program has been a success from its introduction last fall," says Cutlip. "We find it works especially well when the participating students share a residential facility."
Another new initiative, spearheaded by the Honors Program and the Career Services Department, is expanding summer internship opportunities for honors students. Using an Internet program, students prepare resumés that can be accessed online by the 10,000 companies in the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA). A similar program, being developed in collaboration with the Connecticut Association for Human Services, will serve honors students interested in careers in the non-profit sector.
Some of the new initiatives are the brainchildren of Trevor Tebbs, a graduate student completing his Ph.D. in gifted education. A professional artist and former art teacher, Tebbs is the new honors facility's first community coordinator. It is, indeed, a role so new that Tebbs' responsibilities are still be defined.
On the one hand, he serves as a resident "consultant," available to meet with students and help them solve problems or find the tools they need to take full advantage of the unique opportunities available to them. But his novel role also affords him the space to initiate programs and services that help the honors program better serve its student population.
One of his inventions is Journeys. It is an ongoing series of seminars that afford students an opportunity to hear from people who have had an interesting "trip" through life. The notion of the trip is an important one for Tebbs, and he sees it as central to the honors experience.
"I try to look at all students holistically," he says. "The way formal education often works means that students are heavily into assimilating knowledge. That's not a bad thing, but it doesn't focus much on feelings and the stress that is inherent in the educational experience. I think it's important not to simply give students information, but to also provide them with opportunities to understand how life evolves. The goal of Journeys is to put students in close contact with people who may be role models or exemplars. The lessons students can take from these seminars may be about behavior they can model for success. Or, conversely, they may learn something about what to avoid."
One of this year's Journeys seminars, on "Native Americans and Their Culture," was led by Trudie Lamb Richmond, program editor at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. Another was an opportunity to meet students from foreign countries, who talked about the journeys that have led them to UConn.
Quantity and quality
"We haven't lowered our standards. Typically, our students are in the top eight percent of their high school class and have SAT scores of at least 1320. The fact that more of them are opting for UConn means we have an outstanding program that compares well with other top universities."
What those students get when they arrive at UConn is an enriched educational experience. That means smaller classes, more interaction with faculty, and an overall effort to help curious minds find the resources they crave in order to achieve their potential. Upper-division honors work may involve special projects, seminars, independent research, graduate course work, and an honors thesis in the student's area of interest.
The beneficiaries of these opportunities are not only the students, however. "The faculty benefit, as well," says Cutlip. "Quite simply, the Honors Program promotes excellence. We're trying to be as attractive as possible to exceptional students. The fact that we're attracting more of them enhances our overall academic program."
Faculty members agree. "If we can get honors students into our laboratories and train them early, their intellectual contributions can be great," says Janine Caira, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who is on the Honors Program's board of associate directors. "Research is about thinking. It expands the mind and presents these students with tremendous growth opportunities. I find them to be capable contributors, who perform a large amount of the quality work done in my lab. Almost all of them end up with at least one primary publication while they are still completing their undergraduate work."
"Through the honors program we get to work with exceptional students," says Sally Reis, a professor of educational psychology, also a member of the honors board. "It's an extraordinarily exciting opportunity. These students are committed, interested and motivated and we have the pleasure of working with them and introducing them to work that can affect the rest of their lives. We also have an opportunity to influence these talented young people to stay at UConn for graduate degrees."