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Learning Experiences: Honor system

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The UW Interdisciplinary Honors Department, located in Mary Gates Hall.

I applied to the UW interdisciplinary honors program largely on a whim. This was back during senior year of high school, when I regarded the UW as a safety school with no real intentions of attending (suffice to say, I overestimated my desirability in the eyes of college admissions offices).

Fast-forward six months, seven rejection letters, and a new-found understanding of my economic position, I found myself sitting in Kane Hall, miserably awaiting orientation at the campus I had literally been born on. It was at that orientation that I began to understand the benefits of having applied to the interdisciplinary honors program.

Established in 1961, the UW honors program is one of the oldest of its kind in the nation and has expanded from 137 students in 1961 to around 1,300 today.

“We seek students who are deeply curious about their world, who want deep engagement with the big issues facing our world, who are keen to think both within and beyond disciplinary lines and who bring a breadth of experiences into their undergraduate years at UW,” Vicky Lawson, director of honors, explained.

The program is based around an interdisciplinary honors core curriculum which replaces general education requirements. It functions as a sort of small liberal arts college within the larger university. Students entering the program often benefit by automatically being placed within a smaller subset of the university.

“This is a big priority for us — a way of making a large university small and welcoming,” Lawson said.

Incoming freshmen enrolled in the honors department (in 2017, about 4.5 percent of the 5,080 students who applied ended up enrolled in the program) are placed in separate orientation groups, provided the opportunity to live in an all-honors dorm, and must take a single-credit introductory honors course during fall quarter led by older students in the program.

I, along with over 100 other freshmen, opted to live on the three floors of West Campus’ Terry Hall designated an honors “living learning community.”

Director of Academic Services Aley Mills Willis explained that the establishment of an honors dorm was in-line with the program’s goals of fostering a tight-knit academic community.

“Our hope was that it would bring students together in ways other than just the honors classes they were taking, or events that they might be attending,” Mills Willis said. ”So that they could form strong bonds with one another and share in the experiences they were all having, both in honors, and at the UW.” 

Aside from the “living learning community,” the department strives to imbue in its students a sense of community through hosting regular events, some emphasising interdisciplinary exposure (such as the annual “Global Challenges: Interdisciplinary Answers” event), others simply providing bonding opportunities (during finals week, pancakes are served in the honors suite).

While many students do complete interdisciplinary honors, there is a trend of students enrolled in interdisciplinary honors failing to complete their honors requirements by graduation.

Lawson recognizes that even if some don’t complete the honors curriculum, the university still benefits from having those students in its halls.

“We value the fact that our completion rates are high,” Lawson said. “We also value that honors helps to recruit great students to the university, regardless of whether they stay in our specific program.”

Ultimately, Lawson is right that one of the most important roles the honors department has to offer is recruitment.

Already developing plans of transferring before the school year had even begun, I entered orientation uninspired and grumpy. In the honors-specific orientation group however, I swiftly found myself fancying the opportunities UW honors presented me.

I was drawn to the eclectic and often eccentric classes offered and enchanted by the study-abroad opportunities provided (all emphasising self-awareness and social justice). More than anything, perhaps, I was impressed by the group of people surrounding me: here was a diverse selection of students with interests ranging from marine life to Middle Eastern policy, all passionate about their studies, all eager to contribute to the world.

This is not to say that many UW students outside of interdisciplinary honors don’t possess these qualities. Honors just made some of them easy to find, and made friendships easy to form.

About to complete my third year at the UW, I reflect upon my experience thus far in interdisciplinary honors with appreciation. I applied to the UW interdisciplinary honors program largely on a whim: that impulse decision has influenced the relationships I have formed, the experiences I have had, and the academic realizations I have made, all for the better.  

Reach writer Sophie Aanerud at Twitter: @thesraanerud

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