Honors program reinforces responsibility and exploration

Brittany Houston was weeks away from starting college and already had homework. Her assignment: Outline her classes and extracurricular activities for the next four years. ''It's a little daunting,'' the biological sciences major and aspiring ophthalmologist from Chesapeake, Va., admitted shortly after getting the assignment at her University Honors orientation in the 2008 summer.
   

Terry Papillon (right), director of the University Honors program, reviews the undergraduate pathways planner with incoming honors student Brittany Houston. Terry Papillon (right), director of the University Honors program, reviews the undergraduate pathways planner with incoming honors student Brittany Houston.

Daunting, perhaps, but over the years the mandatory course-of-study planner has been an effective way for students in Virginia Tech's University Honors Program to make the most of their time in college. Honors students often take double majors, study abroad, do summer research projects, and hold internships. The planner helps them fit it all in.

''If you plan, you can create all sorts of interesting opportunities,'' said Professor of Classics Terry Papillon, the honors program director.''But if you're only thinking one semester to one semester, you don't see the long-term goal.''

Students in this program have a strong history of setting goals and reaching them. Since 1990, they have won more than 150 prestigious national scholarships, including the Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Goldwater, and Udall. In that period, Virginia Tech honors students also have been named to USA today's All-USA College Academic Team six times, including 2008 and in both 2006 and 2005.

   

Terry Papillon, director of the University Honors program, explains the pathways planners during an orientation program for prospective honors students. Terry Papillon, director of the University Honors program, explains the course planner during an orientation program for prospective honors students.

Honors officials are quick to praise their students for such accomplishments rather than take credit themselves. ''The honors program here really is about giving students both the responsibility and the freedom to explore all of the things they can be,'' said Jack Dudley, a professor of sociology who ran the program from 1990 until he retired in summer 2008.

Nonetheless, current and former students say the program makes a big difference by nurturing ambition, highlighting extraordinary educational opportunities, and surrounding high-achievers with equally motivated peers.

''Just the average people in your hall, the average people that you meet, no one is average, really,'' said freshman Liz Stokley, a native of Raleigh, N.C. and industrial design major, who lives in the honors community in Main Campbell Hall.

An opt-in program

Some universities automatically enroll their top-scoring applicants in their honors program. Virginia Tech invites its applicants to apply for University Honors if they meet the threshold of a roughly 3.7 GPA and 1,300 on the SATs.

''We want ones who have that basic curiosity and initiative,'' Papillon said, ''and we have them show that by applying, not just by accepting our offer.''

   

Betsy Brucker, a university honors student, studies in Torgersen Hall. Betsy Brucker, a university honors student, studies in Torgersen Hall.

Students in Papillon's program get priority registration and can take honors-level courses that tend to be smaller and offer greater interaction with professors. Honors students can apply for special scholarships that donors have established for the program. Honors advisors are available to recommend particular classes, internships, and other activities that will help a student reach his or her long-term goals.

While planning her international studies major with an honors advisor, Betsy Brucker realized that adding a couple of classes would get her a minor in French. ''And an economics major can fit in too,'' said the freshman from Naperville, Ill., who also had found time to participate in the Leadership Tech program and the Student Government Association.

''I plan to go talk to an advisor soon about [how to prepare for] taking the Foreign Service exam to work in the state department,'' Brucker added.

Encouraging ambition

One of the course-of-study-planners that Brittany Houston and other new honors students were shown at orientation was that of Ashley White, materials science and engineering, music 2005. White is now in her final year of a Ph.D. in materials science at Cambridge, where she researches artificial materials for bone replacement.

She said she chose Virginia Tech out of high school, in part, because its honors officials were fine with her double majoring in engineering and music -- something other schools discouraged because of the heavy course load. White proved to be more than up to the challenge she set herself. By her senior year, she was not only a concert violinist, but a Marshall scholarship winner.

''While I'm sure there's value to making sure students, particularly in their first year, don't overload themselves, I think it's worse to limit them when they could do more,'' said White, who has not only continued to excel in science, but is president of the Cambridge Graduate Orchestra.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Albert Raboteau at (540) 231-2844.

Making the most of mentors

    David Grant

David Grant, a senior from Burke, Va., was able to study in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories with support from the honors program's Class of '54 scholarship. He says he's interested in journalism and foreign policy and was a 2008 finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship. He also is editor in chief of The Collegiate Times and managing editor of Philologia, a journal for undergraduate research papers that will debut next year. 

''If you'd have told me that my life the last four years would be this way back when I showed up at freshman orientation, I would have been shocked,'' Grant said, who has a double major in political science and religious studies. ''You don't know how far you can go, how much you can reach, until you have those mentors and that support. It's an incredible thing.'' 

  • Learn more about how honors scholarships help students to have extraordinary experiences.

Looking to do even more

The honors program has some 1,600 students. About 200 of them live in the program's learning communities located in Hillcrest and Main Campbell halls. A long-term goal for the program is to organize learning communities for a greater number of its students, because officials believe that students benefit tremendously from being in them. Another goal is to raise money, within The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future, for scholarships to help the program compete for the best students nationwide.

An All-American effort

    Christine George was named to USA Today’s All-USA College Academic First Team

 

Christine George was named to USA Today’s All-USA College Academic First Team during her senior year in the honors program, in recognition of her public health research in Africa. Read a related Spotlight article on George's research

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