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Honors Program Blends Academic
and Residential Experience
September 27, 1999

Something interesting is going on in the Honors Program. The numbers alone tell a fascinating story. Consider:

  • 240 new freshman honors students showed up at UConn this year, a 21 percent increase over the 198 who arrived in September 1997.

  • 27 were high school valedictorians, compared to 17 for each of the last two years - an increase of nearly 60 percent.

  • Average SAT scores for incoming honors students have risen from 1,317 to 1,352 in the last two years.

  • The program has had to expand the Freshman Honors Seminar from three sections a year ago to six this year. Half of the students in the incoming honors class are taking this elective course.

Unquestionably, UConn is attracting more top students, thanks to the University's strong commitment to the Honors Program and development of exceptional academic offerings and facilities.

But, says Michael Cutlip, director of the program, the wealth of new talent also calls for a creative approach to programming. "We have to keep raising the bar," he says. "Honors is much more than simply a cluster of smart students. It succeeds because we provide a rich array of opportunities for those students to grow and achieve their potential. That, in turn, depends on our capacity to nurture a strong sense of community within the program."

Perhaps no one has done more to tackle that challenge than Trevor Tebbs, assistant director of the honors program. A graduate student himself, Tebbs lives with his wife in one of the South Campus apartments, which makes him especially accessible to the students he serves.

It is the first time that a member of the honors staff has actually lived on campus with the students. But then, South Campus also represents the first time UConn honors students have had their own dedicated complex. To Tebbs, that concentration of bright students in one location presents a remarkable opportunity.

"The point is to maximize the entire university experience," says Tebbs. "The overall educational experience is enhanced if we can get students to organize their lives around values and be characterized by their values. The only way to discover those values is through the growth that occurs in interaction with others. That's what a community is about."

Enter the Interest-A-Lyzer
But how do you build a community? You start, says Tebbs, by knowing your citizens. To that end, he is using a tool called The University of Connecticut Interest-A-Lyzer, introduced for the first time this year.

Based on a similar tool developed for use in schools by Joseph Renzulli and Sally Reis, professors in the University's Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, the Interest-A-Lyzer is a deceptively simple, five-page questionnaire. With questions about students' passions, leadership experiences, life-altering experiences and other values, it helps students think about and clarify their interests and values.

"Learning from lectures and textbooks is only one aspect of university life," says Tebbs, a Ph.D. student in the gifted and talented education program. "To learn by doing, by engaging in creative and productive activities - both in and out of the context of course work - is essential."

The Honors Program uses the information garnered through the Interest-A-Lyzer in several ways. Not only does it provide an informative profile of each student, but the data can be cross-referenc ed to identify clusters of students with shared interests, who may work together collaboratively or benefit from the introduction of specific recreational activities.

"Historically," says Kathy Usher, also an assistant director of the Honors Program, "the university experience has been fragmented. Students would go to their classes. Then they would go to their dormitories. There would be no continuum. Faculty and staff had little involvement in students' lives outside the classroom. We're trying to change that."

The Honors Program is at the forefront of that effort. "It's easy - perhaps even natural - to settle into the four-person suites here on South Campus and establish a 'community' consisting primarily of one's roommates," says Cutlip, "but we hope to find increasingly effective ways to draw students out and build a greater sense of an honors community. If we can do this, from the moment they step foot on campus, we begin to equip them with social skills and a sense of inquisitiveness that will not only enhance their overall educational experience, but serve them well throughout their lives and careers."

Ambitious Programming
The programming being developed for honors students is as ambitious as the Interest-A-Lyzer. Tebbs, for instance, introduced the popular Journeys seminars last year. In these seminars, students have opportunities to meet and interact with others who share the life "journeys" that have led them to UConn. Those journeys are often harrowing, sometimes amusing, inevitably dramatic. And they afford students a vicarious opportunity to learn from the experiences of others.

Tebbs also plays a key role in developing recreational/ educational opportunities for South Campus. These are programs that entertain, while also offering a significant - often multicultural - learning opportunity.

And this year for the first time the Honors Program organized a "buddy" system, pairing incoming freshmen with upperclassmen who help guide new students through the university experience. All 115 incoming honors freshmen who requested a buddy were provided with one.

Usher manages a wide range of additional services to help students make the most of the University's educational resources. These include helping students find out about and apply for scholarships, helping them meet and interact with faculty advisors, and preparing them with the skills needed to take advantage of laboratory, internship and work-study opportunities.

In their respective roles, Tebbs and Usher are aided by John Sears, who was recently appointed director of academic programs in the UConn residence halls. Sears' job is to serve as a liaison between faculty and staff and help develop more experiences that unite students' academic and residential lives. "Having Trevor live in the residence hall is a good example of the sort of improvements we want to make," says Sears. "Our aim is to find ways to enrich all aspects of students' lives. Often this means breaking down traditional barriers."

Is all of this effort working? "Absolutely," says Sean Hutchins, a junior honors student from Portland, Me., who lived on the honors floor in Buckley Hall last year and is now a resident of South Campus. "The range of activities has expanded dramatically and I think most honors students are taking advantage of these opportunities. There's a lot of talk about the Interest-A-Lyzer and freshmen I know feel like they are getting a lot out of the honors seminar."

Overall, says Tebbs, the new programs are an attempt to make the UConn experience as satisfying as possible. "We have a responsibili ty to do what we can to help these talented young people grow," he says. "The evidence suggests that these programs go a long way toward making our students feel good about themselves and their decision to come here. If you've got someone who's feeling good, you've got someone who will achieve."

Jim Smith