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The University Honors Difference

December 7, 2012
Jordon Mitzelfelt

Jordon Mitzelfelt

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Northern Now, the magazine of Northern Illinois University. It is posted here with permission of the associate editor.

What does it mean to graduate with honors? Sure, you get a special sash to wear at commencement and an impressive line on your resume, but what does it really mean to the students who are enrolled in NIU’s University Honors Program today?

Plenty, according to one of those hard-working undergraduates. “It’s not just something you throw on your resume,” says Jordon Mitzelfelt, a sophomore biological sciences major. “There’s a story behind that with everything you’ve done and all the leadership opportunities it opens up.”

Beyond a focus on providing specialized academic opportunities for high-achieving students, the University Honors Program strives to create a supportive community environment that helps those students flourish. Social activities, educational enrichment and volunteer opportunities are all part of the University Honors experience.

Add in options such as living in the University Honors House in the new residential hall and access to exclusive activities such as the freshmen retreat at NIU’s Lorado Taft campus, and you’ve got a valuable and unique college experience that students will be lining up for. And that’s exactly what’s happening on campus today.

The best of both worlds

Established in 1969, the University Honors Program has been assisting students in their pursuit of excellence for over four decades. Students are admitted into the program based on ACT scores, high school rankings, and grade point averages, and have access to several benefits and resources.

Students in the program can take advantage of priority registration for courses, small classes capped at 20 to 25 students, a peer-mentor program, and special Honors advising. They also have access to distinctive academic opportunities such as Honors-only courses and the ability to work one-on-one with a faculty member on a Senior Capstone project. Perhaps most importantly, they become part of a tight-knit community dedicated to helping them succeed and build leadership skills.

Christopher M. Jones, associate vice provost for University Honors, acknowledges the important role this special community plays.

“Because NIU is a Ph.D.-granting institution, we can offer our undergraduates more academic and faculty resources, including research opportunities, than smaller public and private colleges. But what’s the potential downside from the perspective of a prospective student? NIU is a large school. The University Honors Program, however, helps personalize NIU. It offers an inviting, supportive, and student-centered learning environment complemented by a community of academic and social fellowship.”

Jes Cisneros, assistant director of University Honors, agrees.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap between the experience an undergraduate has at a small liberal arts college and a large public university. We’re trying to give students the best of both worlds—the more personalized, value-added experience you typically get at a small school, and the excellent research faculty and other engagement opportunities larger schools are known for.”

It’s no wonder enrollment in the program is booming.

An institutional priority

Christopher M. Jones

Christopher M. Jones

Since fall 2010, the University Honors Program has grown from 861 to 1,083 students, a 25 percent increase. In fact, this year’s incoming class of 226 University Honors freshmen was the largest since 1987. The program has experienced significant qualitative growth as well. This year’s class of University Honors freshmen had an average ACT score of 29, an average high school GPA of 3.94, and an average class rank in the top 12.5 percent of their high school graduating class.

In addition, notes Jones, “the population of minority students has grown by over 100 percent. So the program is becoming demographically more like the campus it serves.” The increase—even more striking when viewed in light of the dip in overall enrollment the university has recently experienced—can be attributed to several factors.

Simply put, Jones says, “The Honors Program is an institutional priority.”

Both NIU’s Great Journeys Strategic Plan and President John G. Peters’ Vision 2020 Initiative have identified the growth of University Honors as central to NIU’s success. Explains Jones, “The institution has focused on the recruitment of high-achieving students, and they see the Honors Program as the conduit, or the magnet, to bring high-achieving students to campus.” To that end, a major recruitment effort was launched, including expansion of merit scholarships, a new auto-awarding scholarship process, and development of new marketing materials for the program.

Another factor is the hard work and dedication of Jones himself, who took on the role of associate vice provost for University Honors on July 1, 2011, having previously served as the chair of the Department of Political Science. In his State of the University address this fall, President Peters commended Jones for his commitment to the program, but recognized that “as Chris will be the first to tell you, the growth of Honors is a result of partnerships across the university, including with the offices of admissions, scholarships, housing, international programs, diversity centers, and with our academic deans, chairs, and faculty, who stepped up big-time with their support.”

Jones concurs. “We can’t be successful here unless we coordinate and collaborate with other offices. The University Honors administrative team and I probably coordinate with more than 25 different offices on campus.”

What does all this mean for the students in the program? More stand-alone Honors courses, for one thing, as their number has nearly doubled this fall when compared to last fall, and is slated to increase even more. More opportunities to study abroad, thanks to the University Honors Study Abroad Travel Grant Program. And much more.

New initiatives

Nick Pohlman

Nick Pohlman

The result of one of the partnerships University Honors has cultivated on campus, a new College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET)-University Honors Program launched this fall. The program was initiated when Nick Pohlman, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, secured a University Honors Summer Improvement Grant, explaining, “I was an Honors student as an undergraduate and felt there was a need for our engineering students to get more involved in NIU’s University Honors Program.”

The program allows students to simultaneously be CEET Honors students and University Honors students, and to take advantage of the resources and benefits available through University Honors, including small class sizes.

The program is off to a promising start. Jones notes that “The University Honors population in CEET has more than doubled in just a few months,” and credits CEET administration and Pohlman with helping NIU move towards meeting the Vision 2020 goal of increasing the number of Honors graduates by 50 percent by the year 2020.

Jones hopes to develop similar partnerships with other colleges as well. “We hope to take the engineering model and transfer it, customize it, to the other colleges.” He continues, “We’re in discussions with education and business with the same idea.”

Another new initiative is the University Honors Summer Scholars Program, established in 2012 to assist a select number of University Honors students with completing an exceptional University Honors Capstone project in their senior year. The program provides scholars with financial support and faculty mentoring to enable them to pursue in-depth research and lay a solid foundation for their Capstone during the summer between their junior and senior years.

In addition, the program’s administrative team recently welcomed a new member who will assist students in competing for national scholarships, fellowships, and academic recognitions. Jones notes that “This is the first time NIU has had such a resource, and it places the university on par with top institutions and honors programs around the country.”

With this abundance of enrichment opportunities and resources at their disposal, what is college life like for a University Honors student?

A home away from home

Students relax in the lounge of NIU’s New Residence Hall.

Students relax in the lounge of NIU’s New Residence Hall.

Jordon Mitzelfelt grew up in the small town of Trivoli, Illinois.

When it came time for her to think about what college to attend, she knew she wanted the experience of attending a large university, but that a school like the University of Illinois felt too big. Northern turned out to be just right. “It’s big enough where you have all those big-school opportunities and resources, but it’s small enough I feel like I’m not drowning in everything; I feel like I can still make a name for myself and be known.”

Though she fell in love with the campus right away, she was nervous about joining the University Honors Program: “It was kind of intimidating.” She also wasn’t sure about living in the University Honors House, a housing option for University Honors students then located in Douglas Hall. “I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know if it was going to be everybody just studying all the time.” But it turned out to be the best move she could have made.

Now located in the new residence hall, the Honors House provides a unique living-learning environment for its 162 residents, who live in clusters of 12 and enjoy private bedrooms and semi-private bathrooms. In addition to offering all the amenities and conveniences of a brand-new, state-of-the-art residence hall, the Honors House offers its residents activities such as game nights and trips to attend cultural events and visit museums.

Another benefit, Mitzelfelt notes, is the built-in tutoring: “It’s so nice to have all these other smart kids around you, so that if you’re struggling in a class that isn’t your thing, one of your neighbors will be majoring in it and will be really good at it, so you have all these connections.”

Most importantly, the house feels like home. “When I come home at the end of the day,” Mitzelfelt says, “they [the cluster residents] will be sitting there, and ask ‘How are you doing; how was your day?’ It’s like going home to your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters.”

Leading tomorrow

Mitzelfelt, who aspires to a career in the medical field, appreciates the way the close-knit University Honors community spurs its students on to greater achievements. “I think Honors students are the leaders on campus,” she says, continuing, “It’s like positive peer pressure. When professors see you’re an Honors student, they kind of expect more out of you. They expect you to be the one to speak up and be the leader of the class, that way other people will get involved too.”

Mitzelfelt also recognizes that the leadership opportunities she is getting as a University Honors student and as one of 14 University Honors Fellows, who work for the program in exchange for tuition waivers, will serve her well in the future.

She treasures the one-on-one experiences that she has had with faculty members, and knows that all the networking opportunities she has had will be of great value to her. “Networking opportunities give you a leg up on the competition and other students around campus. ”

As an institutional priority, the University Honors Program is poised to lead NIU into the future by cultivating this community of the university’s best and brightest. With increased resources at their disposal, the dedicated Honors administrative team will continue to guide a growing number of these exceptional students towards graduation and out into the world, well equipped to lead and make a difference in their professions and communities. And that is of great benefit to us all.

by Lorraine Propheter, NIU Alumni Association assistant director