Nourishing Scholarship: 50 Years of the University Honors Program
Justin N. Elkhechen ’15 already has his plans in place for his senior honors capstone project.
The junior biochemistry major is researching the migratory patterns of cancer and stem cells at the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute under Assistant Professor James H. Henderson.
“This project has significant clinical relevance in that shape memory polymers can be used as a tool to study how aberrant cell growth and tissue regeneration can potentially be halted and stimulated, respectively, within the human body,” Elkhechen says.
Elkhechen’s capstone project and the other opportunities available through the Renée Crown University Honors Program have added layers of scholarship to his college career and to the thousands of others who have embraced the possibilities offered by the program over the past 50 years.
Those 50 years—with the 50th cohort of students entering in the fall of 2013 and a variety of 50th anniversary events during the 2013-14 school year—have been marked by the achievement of its students and the support of the honors faculty and staff who encourage students to go beyond what they think is possible.
Students have flexible course requirements through the program. But, more importantly, they are challenged through the entirety of coursework, projects and learning opportunities to gain certain attributes before they graduate—breadth and depth of knowledge, commitment to civic engagement, global awareness, capacity for collaborative work and command of language.
“We have some pretty high hopes for our honors students, that they will go out into the 21st-century world with genuine curiosity and skill,” says Stephen Kuusisto, director of the honors program and professor of disability studies. “We have about 800-plus students in the program in any given year, which represents about 7 percent of the undergraduate population. That’s a considerable number of kids who are reaching for the brass ring.”
The legacy of honors students began in 1963 with the inception of the program in the College of Liberal Arts. Professor Mary Marshall, one of the program’s founders, was its first director, leading the program as it developed challenging, small classes in the liberal arts disciplines.
Marshall’s value as an educator—with accomplishments throughout her 69-year career that included being named to the Jesse Truesdell Peck Chair in English Literature, being the first woman to obtain the rank of full professor in the College of Liberal Arts and co-founding the Syracuse University Library Associates—proved a strong foundation for the honors program.
The program grew into a University-wide program in the 1970s, with different disciplines brought together in one classroom. With its expanding reach, the Honors Program needed more space and moved from the Hall of Languages to Bowne Hall in January 1990. Today, its suite has a computer cluster for students, a student lounge, two classrooms and library space, along with staff offices.
In 2002, the program achieved a new level when it was renamed to honor Trustee Emeritus Renée Schine Crown ’50. Crown’s family made a substantial gift to support the costs of student research projects. Samuel Gorovitz, former dean of Arts and Sciences and professor of philosophy, was the founding director of the Renée Crown University Honors Program.
“The gift was transformative of the program,” says Deputy Director Eric Holzwarth. “It allowed us to provide wonderful support for capstone projects—sciences, drama, anthropology and everything in between.”
The capstone project is a major research thesis or creative project that students must formulate and complete. Students have used the funding to conduct scientific research, capture interviews on a famous pilgrimage in the Pyrenees and direct an original film in Puerto Rico. The program has awarded well over $100,000 over the years.
“We fund about 20 or so of these a year. The funding allows juniors and seniors to take what would ordinarily be a good solid capstone and do something really spectacular with it,” Holzwarth says. “One of the most delightful things about the capstone is the surprise on the part of the students when they do so much more than they thought they could.”
In 2004, the program made the capstone mandatory for all honors students, a shift from the previous curriculum that was made up of two divisions: lower division honors, in which students did not have to complete a capstone, and thesis honors.
Senior honors students present their projects at the end of their final semester and an honors convocation is held before graduation, in which students are awarded monetary prizes for the top capstone projects. An additional prize, named after alumni David Orlin, is presented to the overall outstanding capstone for that year.
Encouragement and support
For their capstone work, students are paired with a mentor and have access to advisors during their entire honors experience. “The advisors and directors of the honors program are always willing to meet to discuss future plans and goals, while always providing the encouragement and support needed to overcome any academic obstacles,” Elkhechen says.
Honors students are faced with a unique set of needs when it comes to advising and meeting the honors requirements.
“One thing that many honors students confront is the fact that they find so many different things interesting, and they struggle with what to major in, how many majors to have, how many minors, etc.,” says Associate Deputy Director Hanna Richardson. “We try to help them distinguish between what kinds of credentials they will actually need upon graduation versus a lifelong passion that they can continue to explore and learn about throughout their lives.”
Honors advising doesn’t take the place of academic advising in the students’ home colleges; honors advisors know just enough about particular majors to point students in the right direction, and they then take a broad view with conversations about interests, goals and long-term aspirations.
One of the most fundamental questions is about completing the honors requirements most efficiently, without needing a lot of additional credits. “Our goal is not that students take more courses to finish honors, but that they understand the requirements and the possibilities that allow them to find courses that count for both honors and for their home college requirements,” Richardson says.
Along with the assistance from advisors, Elkhechen appreciates the variety of interesting courses, in small, discussion-based groups, such as "The Human Predicament." “These courses for honors students are geared toward bettering our character and life values as growing adults,” he says.
Professor John Western, Maxwell Professor of Teaching Excellence in Geography, has been a faculty member in the honors program for 28 years and teaches the honors course "American Diversity and Unity," a mix of geography, politics, culture and history.
Along with leading a class, Western takes groups of honors students on outings, such as to the Lake Ontario shoreline, to further get to know their aspirations.
“They all want to learn more and they are giving themselves a hurdle,” Western says. “They may be doing it to get that gold star, but they are also doing it because they are pursuing their intellectual curiosity. Teaching the honors students and seeing their potential has given me immense enjoyment over the past three decades.””
Honors students are often chosen as commencement speakers and Remembrance Scholars, and Western believes they have the potential to achieve even more. “For those who have the desire, I would hope they would become our next leaders,” Western says.
In expanding its reach to assist more students, the honors program’s offices and its advising staff are part of a recent initiative open to all students across campus. The Center for Fellowship and Scholarship Advising, directed by honors staff member Kate Hanson in collaboration with director of undergraduate studies Judith O’Rourke, offers assistance to students looking to apply for scholarships, such as the Fulbright or Rhodes or any of the variety of scholarships available to students.
“We’ve made this an organizational priority to work with students as soon as they come to SU to teach them about the culture of grants and fellowships—and what those could mean for them,” Kuusisto says.
In this 50th anniversary year of propelling students to achieve more, the honors program staff has marked the occasion with special events that honor its history. A student competition was held for a design of the 50th anniversary logo, which was awarded to Nick Jones ’15, a public relations and political science major.
In November, students, former students, faculty and staff celebrated the anniversary and the program’s work at a reception, with special remarks by SU Trustee and honors alumnus Elliott Portnoy ’86. About 100 people attended the reception.
This spring, the program will also honor the legacy of Mary Marshall by naming the office’s library in her honor. Visitors to the program’s website can also view the many faces and stories of students, faculty and staff who were part of—or continue to be part of—the honors program in a series of profiles.
Although it has a storied past, Kuusisto is planning for even further possibilities for the program. The plan is to implement a development campaign to build on the endowment provided by the Crown family. The additional funds would assist more students in their intellectual pursuits and research. It would also help to fund students who get internships but might not be able to afford living expenses, if the internship is unpaid.
Program officials would also like to move the honors program into bigger facilities with additional classrooms and student meeting space.
With these initiatives, Kuusisto hopes the 50-year-strong program will be made even more robust. “That’s how we’re looking at the next few years—and it’s exciting,” Kuusisto says.