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Record number of new freshmen enroll in
Honors Program

RELEASED: Nov. 12, 2010

EAU CLAIRE — A record number of new freshmen are enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's Honors Program this fall, a sign that ongoing efforts to revamp the nearly 30-year-old program are paying off.

The program attracted 137 new freshmen, bringing the total number of honors students to 502, said Dr. Jefford Vahlbusch, director of the University Honors Program. He expects that number to increase by about 20 when transfer students arrive for the 2011 spring semester.

"We have many honors students who are very active in the program, but we're still only serving a small percentage of our student body," Vahlbusch said. "We're working to make this a more useful program that will better meet the needs of even more of our talented students."

Toward that end, program leaders are changing the admissions procedures, as well as increasing the number and variety of opportunities offered to honors students, Vahlbusch said.

"We want this program to serve high-achieving, high-potential and highly motivated students," Vahlbusch said. "Many different combinations of those traits — achievement, potential and motivation — should make students eligible to be honors students."

In the past, only academic achievement in high school and ACT scores were used to determine who was invited into the program, Vahlbusch said.

"We know highly motivated students thrive in Honors even if they didn't live up to their potential in high school," Vahlbusch said. "Many high-potential or highly motivated students blossom once they get on campus. Honors wants to help them to go as far intellectually and professionally as they can in four years."

A summer pilot program featuring a holistic honors admissions procedure helped identify more than 50 admitted freshmen with the qualities that faculty expect in honors students, Vahlbusch said. These students, who would have been missed in past years, were invited into the program along with those selected using the traditional admission criteria, he said.

"Almost 20 of these students came to UW-Eau Claire, and most enrolled in Honors," Vahlbusch said. "The new holistic admissions procedure, where we consider the whole student, not just test scores and rank in class, is a positive revision that will help us find even more students who have that spark we're looking for in honors students."

Program leaders were especially pleased that several students identified through the pilot program are multicultural students, a population that's long been underrepresented in Honors.

"By helping recruit and retain a more diverse student body within the Honors Program and by revising the program in smart ways, I want UW-Eau Claire to become a top choice among high-achieving students from historically underrepresented cultural groups," said Dr. David Jones, the first University Honors Program Faculty Fellow.

The most successful honors students take advantage of opportunities to study and network with students who also are strongly motivated, and they build meaningful connections with faculty, Jones said.

"Honors students get to know each other and the faculty well since classes are small and project-based assignments are common," Jones said. "If students appreciate reaching a higher level of depth in their course work and are interested in connecting with students and faculty, they will find a very good home in the Honors Program."

Honors students take many of their required general education courses and several elective classes as honors courses. Honors courses often focus on specific topics that are not covered in other classes on campus. Examples of recent honors courses include "The Physics and History of the Atom Bomb," "Power, Privilege and Inequality" and "Global Health Issues."

Some general education classes also offer honors sections or labs, with faculty changing the content or their teaching approach to better meet the honors students' needs, Vahlbusch said. For example, an honors lab for a science class may require students to work more independently than students enrolled in the class' other labs, he said.

"These courses — designed by faculty specifically for the Honors Program — give students and faculty a chance to do things that can't be done in regular classes," Vahlbusch said. "They encourage independent learning, teamwork and discovery."

The best part of the Honors Program is the relationships he has formed with professors and other students, said James Wagner, a senior finance major from Apple Valley, Minn.

"A room full of highly motivated, driven and intelligent students allows for very interesting discussions," Wagner said of the small honors classes. "Students from different backgrounds raise thoughts, ideas, opinions and perspectives that I may not have thought of. Professors treat us more like colleagues whose input matter and they take us very seriously.

"When I look back on my years at UW-Eau Claire, the things I will remember from my classes, for the most part, aren't facts and figures. The best classes have taught me skills and values that I can apply throughout my life. Honors is great because the professors don't test us on names and dates, but on our understanding of the material presented. If we can truly gain an understanding of the material, we can turn that knowledge into skills and values. The program gives us these experiences in a way that most other classes cannot."

Senior Audrey Mohr also was drawn to the Honors Program because she was interested in taking small classes with students who enjoy participating in class and being challenged.

"I've taken some interesting and stimulating classes, and I've met other students who enjoy learning as much as I do," said Mohr, a geology major from New Ulm, Minn. "My critical thinking and writing skills have expanded, and I have a greater appreciation for scholarship and a liberal education."

The topic-based honors courses give students a chance to study interesting topics that are outside their primary academic field, said Anja Meerwald, a junior nursing major from Edina, Minn. The honors course "Scandals and Politics" was among the classes she most enjoyed at UW-Eau Claire, Meerwald said.

"As a nursing major, Honors is my chance to take classes I wouldn't normally be able to take," Meerwald said. "Politics are a passion of mine so being able to take a political class along with my science classes was great. Next semester, I'm taking an honors literature class along with three nursing classes, which again is a nice break for me."

Wagner said he also appreciates the opportunity to explore topics that wouldn't be part of traditional courses offered on campus.

"I reluctantly took a narrative imagination class, which ended up being an incredible experience," Wagener said. "The class was taught by a female professor and I was the only male student in the room. All of the novels we read featured female protagonists. It took me a while to gather up the courage to talk about the experiences of women with women, but once I did, my mind was opened to many new perspectives. One of the best parts of the Honors Program is how much you can learn by just listening to those around you."

Program leaders recognize how meaningful those experiences are so they are working to bring more faculty into the Honors Program to expand the number and variety of courses offered.

"We offer flexibility in course design," Jones said. "If a course is related to a 'big question' that doesn't fall within a single academic field of study, they are often a great fit for the Honors Program. Because we welcome learners from all majors, there is an opportunity to bring knowledge from many disciplines to motivated students."

Vahlbusch said already more faculty from multiple disciplines are jointly teaching honors courses, and more faculty are creating honors immersion courses and other outside-the-classroom experiences, such as internships and research projects.

A goal of the revamped Honors Program is to allow students to use the program's resources to create an honors experience that best meets their needs, Vahlbusch said. The creation of honors contracts — which allow students to turn opportunities such as study abroad or internships into honors experiences by doing additional work — is an example of the new tools that he hopes will enable students to individualize the program, he said.

A more individualized approach makes sense since ultimately the students enrolled in the program determine what they get out of it, Wagener said.

"Regardless of the classes you take or the classmates you have, the Honors Program is only valuable if you put the work into it," Wagner said. "The best honors students are the ones who challenge themselves and their beliefs, as well as those of the people around them. The more effort you put forth, the more you will be rewarded within the Honors Program.

For details about the University Honors Program, contact Dr. Jefford Vahlbusch at 715-836-3621 or vahlbujb@uwec.edu, or Dr. David Jones at 715-836-4949 or jonesm@uwec.edu.

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JB/JP/DW

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