The Honors Story

When you think of an honors college, what comes to mind? Chances are that your idea of honors colleges isn’t very different from how they are defined today: elite academic programs for top students, designed to provide them with enhanced learning opportunities and a great resume bullet.

Within that prototype, some structural differences pop up today; a few honors colleges are separate and self-contained, while most offer little more than somewhat advanced courses in the major. And some, like FIU’s, have a full battery of both interdisciplinary courses and co-curricular opportunities. The checklist of options varies from institution to institution, but most honors units pull from the same grab bag: a foundational course or two, study abroad, research theses, invitational lectures, small class sizes, close faculty mentoring, IT labs, set-aside scholarships.

FIU’s Honors College has been stalwart- indeed, outstanding- in pursuing these and quite a few other goals over the years, and we are proud of what we’ve achieved. But the time has come for a sea change.

We believe that universities- especially state universities- can no longer afford for honors colleges to be what one former FIU provost called “boutique units.” We believe that the long standing honors model can no longer be sustained, or indeed have significant value, in 21st century education. We believe that the Honors College must step boldly, along with the rest of academia, into the new paradigm of higher education.

It’s time to reinvent Honors.

“It’s time to reinvent Honors.”

First and foremost we are determined to demolish the silo. Silos are for farms. They are not gilded cages for the elite. Honors community does not require segregation, nor does Honors prestige require elitism. Honors is actually anti-elitist, offering all sorts of young people an opportunity for a value-added education worth of the Ivy League. Our focus is not on what students did before, but on what they will do with the many opportunities we offer them now. We want students who are eager to participate fully in the Honors experience and contribute fully to the Honors community.

An Honors education should be available to any student who can and will “work the program,” and maximize the unique value added it provides. Honors can no longer be a well-kept secret around FIU. We are coming out of the academic closet, recruiting current FIU students as well as freshmen, showing face wherever the action is, standing up as changemakers.

We need to dispel the falsehoods that float around unchallenged: that Honors will bring down your GPA (it usually raises it); that Honors “doesn’t count” (it counts toward core and often toward electives in the major and/or capstone courses); that it’s not relevant to majors (the Honors College offers many tracks to benefit your major); that it’s “harder” (nope- just better).

At its best, the Honors College is a breathtakingly advanced pedagogical laboratory that the university is only beginning to appreciate. We are anxious to partner, not compete, with other units. Honors has a great deal to share with the FIU community beyond invigorated students who help raise the level of discourse throughout the university’s courses.

For 15 years we have offered a full-scale research program, including a six-credit course; training in proposal writing, poster preparation, and presentation; hosting regional undergraduate research conferences as well as our own major annual conference; and sending students to national and international conferences. We have active partnerships with no fewer than 15 other units within the university, including the Colleges of Medicine and Law, the Frost and Wolfsonian Museums, the College of Business, Athletics, the Center for Leadership, Veterans Affairs, University Housing, the College of Architecture and the Arts, the McNair Program, FIU Online, and the College of Engineering. We are working on at least a dozen new alliances that will bring about productive collisions of talent, experience, and perhaps even fundraising.

While serving the university, we must always stay focused on serving our students. We have listened when our students tell us they want not only an academic and cultural education, but also professional preparation. So we train our students in real-world success skills, which also become habits of thought: oral and written communication; working in interdisciplinary teams; thinking on their feet; negotiating; networking; problem-solving; logical analysis; clear augmentation; leadership; ethics; appropriate grooming and personal interaction; taking creative ideas to implementation; fundraising; finance- well, you get the idea.

We also give our pre-professionals the best possible opportunities to achieve their dreams. In the last year, we have initiated 6 early assurance pipeline programs for medicine, law, pharmacy, dentistry, osteopathy, and engineering, with more in the works. No other honors program anywhere has so many options for its students to know, two years into college, that they will indeed be able to take the next big step on their academic and professional career paths.

But that’s still not enough. Reinvention never stops. As of now, we are the only major honors program in the country that offers courses online. That’s huge. Why? Because we have to meet the students where they are, not where we think they should be. And they’re online. They’re working two jobs. They’re in jobs requiring travel. They’re taking care of their families. They’re car-less. Or they’re stuck in traffic. And they’re comfortable online. Nonetheless, the almost universal refrain from honors administrators nationwide is, “But that’s not honors.” Sure it is! We know it is, because we’re doing it. And because we’re doing it first, we’re going to do it so well that everyone will look at us and say, “Wow. Yeah, that is honors!” We believe in this so much that we’ve introduced Honors College membership to students in fully online degree programs. Nobody in a non-profit university is doing that.

The Honors College is reinventing not only itself, but the model of what honors can and should be. When, in a recent workshop, FIU deans were asked to briefly summarize their units’ missions and goals, we said ours was to be the driver of undergraduate excellence at FIU.

This is what we’re driving.