At the heart of the University of Houston is a center of undergraduate excellence called the Honors College. An Honors education encompasses both great books and grand challenges; it inspires students not only to read and reflect but also to act and create — to build contacts and community within the college itself, across the entire campus, and out into the city and the world.
This ongoing commitment to community-building is not confined to the neat parameters of the academic calendar; it’s a continuing effort that happens year-round. A number of initiatives are emblematic of these “four seasons” of Honors:
Summer Of Apps
In 2014, research professors Dan Price and Peggy Lindner organized the first “Summer of Apps,” a project that combines tech-savvy with service. More than a dozen students from the UH chapter of the Bonner Leaders Program, which is sponsored by the Honors College, created mobile device apps that, according to Price, “help small nonprofits that don’t really have the budget for their own technology.” One of those nonprofits is Houston’s own SHAPE Community Center, for which the students designed an app that improves the coordination of volunteer hours and opportunities.
The Summer of Apps reflects Price and Lindner’s philosophy of “putting data analytics in student hands” — and not just in the hands of UH students. Price recruited Honors alumna Blair Ault (’10) to teach in the Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) run by another of the college’s community partners, Workshop Houston. “Inspired by the Summer of Apps at the college level, SLI was housed in the Honors College,” Ault explained. “Ten high school students took on the challenge of learning the skills needed to create their own mobile app. It was a lot of fun to work on campus and take the students on walkabouts to engage them in conversation about their own college aspirations.”
Fall Of Mentoring
In a few short years, those aspirations will become realities, and some of those SLI students may well be returning to campus as Honors students. If they do, they’ll be able to take advantage of the college’s smart and caring Mentorship Program, started in 2010 by Brenda Rhoden, now assistant dean for student affairs.
Rhoden shares a vision of student persistence and retention with program coordinator Franco Martinez (’10). “Students can have difficulty transitioning from high school to college, and may need some additional support in that first year to learn the ins and outs of higher education and become fully integrated into the Honors Community,” Martinez said.
An Honors education encompasses both great books and grand challenges; it inspires students not only to read and reflect but also to act and create.
That support comes in the form of a cohort of 18 peer mentors, who go through a rigorous selection and training process. Two student “mentor executives” assist Martinez in preparing the mentors for their important role, which begins at a two-day retreat in late August. The mentors are the lead counselors at this off-campus event that welcomes incoming freshmen.
“Honors Retreat is a huge part of getting students involved in the community,” Martinez said. Through the fall semester, mentors stay connected to their charges by inviting them to other events, such as “dinner with the profs,” Undergraduate Research Day and the Honors Organization Fair. They also give good counsel during weekly meetings and “check-in” hours. The experience is so successful that many first-year mentees apply to be the following year’s mentors.
Mentor executive Beth Knuppel’s opinion exemplifies the ownership these volunteers take of the program. “I want to ensure that every student who enters the Honors College knows they have not just joined a college, but also a family that will support them every step of the way,” Knuppel said.
Winter Of Service
The aforementioned Bonner Leaders are another cohort of Honors students who display commitment to giving back to the community. This January, with the establishment of the Coog City Cares group, they had a new way of contributing to the University of Houston’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. The group is the brainchild of sophomore Grace Schwarz. “Coog City Cares is the name of a core team of Bonners that collaborates with the MLK Day of Service committee,” Schwarz explained.
Schwarz and her colleagues are especially focused on the bond between the University and its neighbors: “We want to unite the student body and the Third Ward into one supportive community.” Like many students, Schwarz has found the experience of doing volunteer work to be transformational: “Before, Coog City Cares service was a hobby,” she said. “Now, it’s my lifestyle.”
Spring of Scholars
Every April, the Honors College has a chance to meet and greet many members of the next class ready to embrace great books and grand challenges. It comes at a large orientation event known as Scholars Invitational. Hosting several hundred high school seniors requires the involvement of not only numerous members of the Honors College staff but also several dozen student volunteers.
According to Sarah Bhojani, director of admissions and recruitment for the Honors College, this all-hands-on-deck effort is certainly worthwhile: “It brings the majority of our incoming class together. I think the Scholars Invitational is just building community from the start. Students are thrown in this situation together in a large group, and not only are they connected with each other, they’re also getting to connect with peer advisers, upperclassmen who have taken classes and have been there, done that before them.”
The invitational is a hit with the young scholars who attend. “They love the idea of being able to lock down their fall classes in April. They love the idea of getting to know colleagues — peers they are going to be in classes with — of starting those relationships, friendships and getting to know us: the faculty and staff of the Honors community,” Bhojani said.
In April, the weather is heating up quickly in Houston, a sure sign of the long, hot summer ahead, but also a sign that in the Honors College, another year of community service and community-building is getting underway. Honors continues to be a college for all seasons.