Clare James knows more about the University Honors Program, and probably the University of Nebraska-Lincoln itself, than most of her classmates. Even the ones who are also in the program.
As an honors peer mentor, the junior nutrition sciences major gives new honors freshmen tours of university facilities and information on resources available to them as honors students. This is her second year as a mentor.
She also works in the office of Honors Program academic adviser Ann Koopmann. James said where she said the staff are “experts at being generalists” and act as a general resource for honors students.
Her deep involvement in the program is a result of her own positive experience, one she said others miss out on because they don’t know about the resources available to them. As a mentor, James has helped other students have an honors experience similar to her own.
The first class of honors freshmen, with 100 students, was recorded in the fall of 1986. This fall, the program plans to enroll about 530 students.
“I have loved pretty much every second that I’ve been in the Honors Program,” James said. “It’s helped me find a lot of people with the same ideals, as far as their education goes. It’s kind of helped narrow down this huge college into a community of people that I can really identify with.”
The most useful resource the program provides, she said, is the staff, who help with scheduling issues, graduation requirements or internship applications, among other things. And they can all be found in one place: Neihardt Residence Center.
The oldest residence hall on campus, Neihardt is the Honors Program’s “home base,” according to Koopmann. It’s where most honors students live, where the faculty offices are located and where some honors classes are taught. Neihardt makes the Honors Program a community, the best one on campus, said senior biology major Bethany Feis.
Honors students share certain values, such as a strong work ethic and enthusiasm about what they study, James said. Living in Neihardt for her first two years of college was a “community-building experience.” She and Feis, both out-of-state students, made friends and found their place at UNL faster than they expected.
“You get this sense of, like, Neihardt is your home,” James said.
She and Feis both have fond memories of taking honors classes. But even if students aren’t as enthusiastic now about what they’re learning, they’ll likely be glad they learned it when they’re older, said associate director Karen Lyons.
“Like a lot of things about your education, you don’t realize how valuable it was until you’ve been out 10 years,” Lyons said. “If I could go back and tell my economics professor what his class means to me, I would.”
Feis eventually chose not to graduate from the program because as a pre-medical student, she felt her regular course load was more important than the thesis or creative project she would have to complete. But she doesn’t regret her time in it.
“If I had to go back and do it all over again, I would definitely be in the Honors Program for a few years,” she said.
The thesis is the main reason many students drop out of the program. Two-thirds to three-quarters of all students who meet the other two requirements (GPA and honors credits) complete the thesis and graduate, Lyons said. That means at least 25 percent of all students leave the program because of the thesis alone. She said it’s a problem the staff is working to solve.
“We’ve gotta get to the students earlier,” Lyons said. “I think the biggest issue is that students don’t understand the importance of it. Thesis is a scary word and a scary thing, and people just run away from it or don’t see the value in it.”
According to the website for Nebraska Honors Program Alumni, an affiliate of the Nebraska Alumni Association, the program has graduated more than 3,400 students in a period of about 28 years. Lyons said honors programs with thesis requirements tend to have low graduation rates but added that UNL’s is higher than most. The Daily Nebraskan requested the official numbers in the hopes of including the program’s graduation rates but was denied.
Lyons is in the process of co-writing a monograph about the honors thesis for the National Collegiate Honors Council, which is also headquartered at Neihardt. She said other university honors programs and colleges have similar thesis requirements, but some have recently moved away from it because of its effect on graduation rates. Aside from UNL, Michigan, Penn State and Purdue are the only Big Ten institutions that have a blanket honors thesis requirement. Lyons said the program plans to keep its requirements the same for the foreseeable future.
Some students procrastinate on their theses and then don’t have time to complete them along with their course work, and some students are simply daunted by the task from the beginning and never figure out how to tackle it or find a faculty adviser. The students who do put in the work, Koopmann said, are usually happy they did.
“The students who choose to complete the project are empowered and set themselves up very well in terms of experiences beyond undergraduate,” she said. “Is it easy? No, I don’t think so. But we select students who have done well academically in high school. Some students think, ‘I’m not sure how to do this.’ And if they come into this office or they talk to Dr. Lyons, then it’s amazing what turns out for them. We hope they don’t just give up.”
The honors office also houses a thesis library. Students looking for inspiration or who are unsure what the completed assignment is supposed to look like can read almost any thesis submitted since the program’s inception in 1986. But Lyons said some are kept under lock and key because of sensitive information. Others have disappeared from the shelves.
Some students leave the Honors Program because they can’t meet the GPA requirement, Lyons said. Students can recover missed credits in some situations, but the GPA and thesis requirements are less flexible. Quantifying the benefits of the program are difficult to do. On paper, it may appear that the only incentive for a new enrollee is the honors textbook scholarship, which is renewable for $500 a year if a 3.5 GPA and good standing within the program is maintained. But as Feis said, $250 might only be enough for one book.
The other benefits are more abstract: Having graduated from the program could make someone more attractive to employers, and as James said, graduates of the program may have a better work ethic and enjoy learning more because of it. James said the Honors Program has allowed her to see all her options as a student and scholar, and it has helped her develop an environment for herself where she can get the most out of her education.
“I have this huge advantage over people,” she said. “It’s that I’ve seen how important personal growth is.”
Koopmann said the honors community encourages students to go beyond normal course work and engage themselves.
“They’re being encouraged to do things outside the normal degree check process. The Honors Program requires students to take full advantage of their education here,” she said. “I don’t think all honors students recognize that’s what they’re being asked. You’re responsible for your education; here are all your opportunities. We’re aggressive in reminding students of their opportunities.”
Lyons said she hopes every student comes away with a lifelong love of learning, if they didn’t have one already.
“If you don’t come away with loving to learn, and you don’t come away with a passion for something, you haven’t put your education to use,” she said.
Koopmann also said that 85 percent of students who enroll in the Honors Program graduate from the university itself in at least four years, and 95 percent graduate in at least five years, but that’s easy to account for: Successful honors applications usually involve ACT scores in the 30s, a high class rank and a demonstrated commitment to educational engagement. And beyond that, Lyons said, each student should exhibit a degree of individualism.
“I don’t want any student to come in here as a typical honors student,” Lyons said. “What I want is to be able to remember everybody’s name when they walk out of the classroom. I want something specific to remember each student by, whether it’s a paper he or she wrote or a comment that person made in class, or whether it’s the two students last semester who acted out Beatrice and Benedick (from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”) in class.”
And even if the numbers take a hit, maybe it’s better that the program is tough and pushes students, James said. Maybe a program designed to single out real scholars isn’t going to find as many as it might hope to.
“It would be great if everyone would see how important the Honors Program is and complete their thesis and graduate,” she said, “but unfortunately that doesn’t happen. Maybe it’s because there’s not enough incentive, but it does kind of narrow down the people who are actually willing to personally invest in their education.”
How to graduate from the Honors Program
1. Take a freshman honors seminar
2. Complete 24 honors credits
3. Take a junior honors seminar
4. Complete a thesis or research project
5. Maintain a 3.5 GPA