by Cory Hopkins | May 2017
The Honors Program (HP) at Georgia Tech was created to be an accelerator for innovation in higher education and beyond, and was conceived in 2006 by a founding committee, which included the eventual director, Dr. Gregory Nobles. The committee sought to create a community characterized by Dr. Nobles as an, “Institute-wide incubator for intellectual inquiry and engagement.” This community of students, would be empowered to learn and innovate across boundaries, to improve and enrich their own lives and the world.
Founding director, Dr. Nobles, characterized the ethos of the Honors Program in this way:
I think one of the most overused and tiresome terms in university life is “incredible,” which is right up there with “awesome” as a word we ought to retire, or put on hold, or send on a sabbatical. Everybody says everything at Georgia Tech is “incredible”—incredible students, incredible classes, incredible this, incredible that. OK, fine. But I decided some years ago that I prefer the term “credible,” especially when I thought about what I wanted in the Honors Program. I admired credible students, young people I could believe in, who did what they said they would do, and did it well. I counted on credible faculty colleagues, fellow professors I could trust to teach new and fresh-seeming Honors Program courses that still had meaningful academic standards. And on the whole, I hoped the Honors Program itself would be credible—not flashy, not jazzy, not trendy, but a solid and substantial program that promoted innovation and intellect. In fact, the Honors Program once got recognition for being an “intellectual community,” and to my mind, there’s no better credibility than that.
The Honors Program evolved over the next several years in response to the needs and desires of the community. In 2010, as the first cohort of Honors Program students approached graduation, a highly-engaged group of Honors Program students developed recommendations that were incorporated into the ever-changing Honors Program. The students recommended eliminating the required retreat for entering students (due to the many competing demands on students as they began their college careers) and requiring, instead, participation in community-building events throughout the year.
In Fall 2014, the Honors Program faced transition—its founding director, Dr. Nobles returned to the Georgia Tech faculty in anticipation of retirement two years later. A new director, Dr. Roberta Berry, was selected to take his place. Nobles had lead the program for eight years and taught in the School of History, Technology and Society since 1983. According to Nobles, he felt ready to transition to other endeavors and leave the Honors Program in what he believes to be capable hands. “We don’t often associate the notion of fun with academic administration,” Nobles said. “But I had a terrific time as Director of the Honors Program. Working with Monica Halka and Nicole Leonard certainly helped, because the three of us usually kept things light and developed a good working/joking relationship. We also shared a spirit of experimentation and invention, trying new ideas—some of which worked, some didn’t—and always coming back to the main question that guided our work: Now what?”
At about the same time, the Honors Program moved into its new suite in the A. French Building next to Tech Tower. The suite included staff offices, a lounge for students, faculty, and staff, and an Honors Program Classroom—with the best view (at the loudest volume) of the Whistle on campus. And almost as soon as they arrived, the Honors Program learned they had to find a new home as of Fall 2015. In the span of 9 months, HP planned and executed their move to an integrated first-year LLC in renovated residence halls (Hefner and Armstrong) in West campus. For 3 of those months, they operated from temporary office space in the basement of an academic building, where they planned and delivered a series of pre-fall semester retreats for the entering Honors Program class for the following fall.
The Honors Program student body continued to grow and most of its upper-level students lived in housing remote from its first-year residence hall. The Honors Program had to find new ways to build and sustain community among an expanding student population.
By Fall 2015, the Honors Program transitioned to a living learning community (LLC) on West Campus, with housing for all 202 members of its largest-ever Fall 2015 entering class on floors 1-3; an Honors Program Classroom, Cafe, and staff offices on the ground floor; and an apartment block for upper-level students across the street. “The Sense of community has been enhanced by the transition to a LLC,” Berry said. “Many students are choosing to stay past their first year!”
HP expanded and revamped their curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular offerings in response to the growing Honors Program student population, and their needs and interests. They also Initiated a new Program Fee for entering students to support an expanded array of community-building events, including a revived Retreat—planned and delivered by upper-level students and staff and conducted two days prior to the early move-in date to avoid conflicts with other activities.
In the past year, the Honors program continued to grow all aspects of their LLC, including developing three new Honors Program “Pathways,” offering concentrations in Research (with partners in the PURA and VIP programs), Service, and Global Engagement. They also expanded their partnership with Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS), and infused sustainability programming into several of their classes. The upper-level student leadership groups evolved into the Honors Leadership Council, with co-executives and five directors of committees, and student co-invention. The council revitalized the Honors Program vision and mission statement, and designed and drafted the Honors Program Viewbook.
In spring 2017, HP staff planned and delivered a 10th Anniversary Celebration of the program, and students planned and delivered their first-ever Spring Student Banquet. The celebration, attended by current HP staff, alumni, former director Dr. Nobles, and many others who are part of the larger HP community, was an incredible success. “The 10th Anniversary Celebration was a great opportunity to bring together Honors Program alumni and current-generation Honors Program students,” Dr. Berry said. “It was inspiring to see the strong bond of community that connects past and present Honors Program students--and to imagine future generations of highly motivated, curious, and creative students who will find a home in the Honors Program, share the experience of living and learning together, and continue to grow our community.”
One of the programs greatest accomplishments of the program is that students have become full partners in co-invention. They’ve built a committee structure and leadership team that mentors the next generation, plans and delivers activities and events with the assistance of staff, and collaborates on all aspects of co-creating the future of the Honors Program at Georgia Tech.
The Future (or, “Dreaming & Advancing”)
As the Honors Program imagines what the next 10 years might be like, they’ve envisioned 3 goals they hope to accomplish:
- All students who should belong to the HP community will belong, regardless of their financial circumstances.
- The faculty who best enable HP students to innovate will join their community, devoting a semester to teaching the students they serve best.
- Honors Program facilities will reflect and advance our mission, including spaces, equipment, and furnishings that support innovation.
“We discover and invent, design and build, create works of art and literature, start enterprises, serve as mentors to younger learners, and contribute to sustainable communities,” said Dr. Berry. “And when we innovate in these ways, we learn more. We find truth, beauty, and goodness in the world around us, sometimes in unexpected places and connected in surprising ways. And we learn how, as life-long learners and innovators, we can both find and advance truth, beauty, and goodness to improve and enrich our own lives and the world.”
*If you want to learn more about the Honors Program, visit their website at honorsprogram.gatech.edu and follow them on Twitter @GTHonorsProgram.