Maximizing the educational experience is the reason students frequently cite as why they pursued honors classes at Ship. The rigor of each course, collaboration among classmates, and dedication of faculty lead to a profound and diverse learning environment.
To continue that effort, it should come as no surprise that the Shippensburg University Honors Program has progressed and evolved over the years. This past spring, the program officially elevated its status to the Wood Honors College. More than a name change, this effort will provide new opportunities to students in the program.
“This change is going to bring greater visibility to the program at Ship,” said Dr. Kim Klein, director of the college. “As the Honors College grows in size, we’ll be able to offer more classes. It will elevate our profile and attract more students to the university.” Kelsey Mengle ’15 credits her honors experience with getting her into the University of Michigan, a top science and engineering school. Now halfway through her doctoral program, she found she was just as prepared as her peers from Stanford or MIT. “We know how great honors is, but this name change will help future graduating students.”
Gaining College Status
Ship’s Honors Program officially started its transition to Wood Honors College this spring. To take on college status, the program worked to fulfill thirteen characteristics established by the National Collegiate Honors Council. These characteristics address recruitment and admissions, cocurricular and residential life opportunities, graduation distinctions, alumni affairs and development, and assessment
. “We’ve been operating as an honors college,” said Cody Olson ’18, honors marketing and management major. “But this will provide it with a more substantial identity.”
The upgraded name might be relatively recent, but the transition from program to college has long been in the making. Klein saw the program’s promise when she took on the director’s role in 2003. “As I learned about the program, I saw its potential. We had amazing students and could do far more than we were doing.”
After reviewing honors programs at other colleges, Klein developed the program with a focus on the National Collegiate Honors Council characteristics. Those standards provide best practices for honors education. During her first summer as director, she reinvigorated the honors faculty advisory board in an effort to address issues such as recruitment, coursework, research, and collaboration across disciplines. Klein said the key to honors coursework is its interdisciplinary nature. “We need to compete and prepare for problems in the twenty-first century, which requires cooperation across disciplines.”
Describing herself as “extremely persistent,” Klein said she always considers the long-term goal. When she heard the university had plans for new residence halls, she pushed for honors housing. “We were the first living-learning community. We piloted an LLC in Seavers,” she said.
Dr. Alison Dagnes, professor of political science, has taught honors classes since 2003. She lobbied for honors housing alongside Klein. “She always has a vision for what it could be. She is constantly engaged in this. She saw the honors residence hall as a possibility,” Dagnes said. “It takes such dedication.”
As the program grew, it offered students new opportunities for research, activities, and service. Students present research regionally and nationally, the studentproduced honors newsletter frequently earns awards for its content and design, and an ongoing service-learning project in the Dominican Republic provides students with an opportunity to serve on a global scale, Klein said
. The honors curriculum under the new college status will be revised by fall 2019, coinciding with the thirty-fifth anniversary of honors education at Ship. Honors students will benefit from a national honors network, gain professional development opportunities, and can take advantage of other year-round honors experiences.
“This will enhance our recruitment efforts,” Klein said. “The name is important.”
Small Classes, Big Rewards
Intense is one way to describe the first semester freshman honors seminar. Dr. Christine Senecal, associate professor of history, kicks off the honors experience with a ten- to twelve-page historical research paper.
“I was dreading (Dr. Senecal’s) class with the beast of a paper,” said Jake Gillespie ’18, communication/journalism major. But Senecal helped Gillespie shape his paper into a topic tied to his discipline. He ended up writing fifteen pages on Ancient Egyptian sports.
This experience is typical in the honors program. Gillespie said the small class sizes allow students to connect with their professors. “Every professor knows your name, your field, and your background.”
When Olson came to Ship, he thought he was prepared for the honors program. Then he failed his first three quizzes. “I was not reading the text,” he admitted. “But I built great relationships with the honors professors. They gave me advice on how to do better in class.”
Although freshmen honors students can get a bit psyched out by their initial assignments, Senecal said the challenge sets them up for a successful academic career. For her research paper, they make connections across disciplines, work with primary and secondary sources, and develop a persuasive thesis. “They come in worried, but I feel like I’ve successfully broken down the stages of this project,” she said. “We’re making something that they can connect with. It’s a unique opportunity.”
“Chrissy has laid the foundation for undergraduate research,” Klein said. “Students embrace the opportunities honors offers.”
The small honors classes provide an atmosphere for enlightening interaction. Dagnes’ political science courses aren’t lectures from the book. They are centered on rich and illuminating dialogue about current events. “It’s a nicer place to start. We can have a conversation that’s more interesting and can move in different directions.”
The structure of the program creates tight bonds among students that lead to greater engagement. “The honors courses included many familiar faces,” said Curtis Rabe ’16. “That was great, because I could get to know the other students well and quickly.”
Dr. Sharon Harrow, professor of English, has taught honors literature and seminar classes since 2012. She appreciates the interdisciplinary nature of honors courses. Professors collaborate on unique course topics, such as an honors seminar on science and religion. And students in the program represent different majors, she noted. “They bring different perspectives from other disciplines.”
Mengle took a seminar course on history and disease that was cotaught by a biology and history professor. “The classes are interesting topics,” she said. “We come from all sorts of majors and are studying subjects that are not normally put together. It’s cool to be in an environment with varying backgrounds having discussions and debates you wouldn’t normally have.”
These class experiences lead to research, presentations, and scholarship opportunities. Klein said 100 percent of honors students who have submitted projects to the National Honors Council Conference in Atlanta have been accepted, and three students will present this fall. Several honors students received Fulbright scholarships and, last year, Ship had its first Goldwater Scholar. Rabe received a Fulbright in 2016 in Germany and recently had the appointment extended. "The opportunities stemming from the honors program were plentiful and rewarding," he said. "The application for the Fulbright Program drove me to take on a German Studies minor in the latter half of my career at Shippensburg. This added skillset has ultimately changed my future career path."
“These students care about their education and want to do well,” Klein said. “They challenge each other and support each other as well. It’s inspiring.”
Making a Difference
Each year, qualified students are invited to join the honors program. There are 170 students currently accepted into the honors program at Ship. They represent diverse disciplines in all three colleges. The have different interests, talents, and passions. Many are student-athletes. But they feed off their differences and value the opportunities to learn from a new perspectives.
“The honors students never fail to amaze me,” Klein said. “Their backgrounds are all different. They are in honors because they want to make the most of their education.”
It can be a challenge to pinpoint what characterizes an honors student. Dagnes said her honors students are very inquisitive and provide illuminating conversation in class. Senecal said they take their passion and work ethic as far as they can. Harrow describes honors students as incredibly engaged. “It’s wonderful and impressive,” she said.
Determining the makeup of an honors student is exactly what Gillespie focused on for his honors capstone class. Gillespie said his communication/journalism major gave him the skills for his project, while honors provided him with the means to apply his skills in the real world.
“This is the thing I was most proud of. I sat down with Dr. Klein and looked at what it means to be an honors student,” he said. “We are so diverse. But honors students want to make a difference.”
Civic engagement was a big focus in Harrow’s honors seminar class. Students looked at the ways literature, theatre, and art reflected, engaged, and changed things in society. “We used art to think about issues in our society,” she said. “They are engaged, not just in their studies, but they are interested in everything.”
Klein said it’s amazing to watch how the honors program makes a difference in students’ lives, then the students give that back and make a difference in the future. “It’s what makes honors here unique.”
Elizabeth Karper ’17 met her best friend in her honors classes. “The program formed me. I came into my own in college. I gained a lot of self-confidence, and gained a lot of professionalism.”
The name change will provide visibility to what Karper described as an already outstanding program. And, much of that she credits to Klein. “She believes in her students. She sees something in them and helps them to blossom.”