Aug232010

Honors College Aims to Enrich Student Experiences at Mason

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By Catherine Ferraro

Dedicated to providing challenging and enriching opportunities to highly motivated undergraduates, Mason’s Honors College recently marked its one-year anniversary.

Although the Honors Program in General Education began about 10 years ago, the Honors College was established last year to bring together several existing programs, create new programs and give honors students a sense of focus. Today, the college has grown to encompass students from almost all disciplines across the university.

Dean Zofia Burr speaks to students in an Honors class. Photo by Creative Services

“When I became dean of the program in 2007, one of my goals was to create a college that reflected the spirit and mission of George Mason University,” says Zofia Burr, dean of the Honors College and associate professor of English.

“The formation of the Honors College has helped students become more visible on campus and better understand their role as part of the intellectual life at the university.”

With nearly 800 students, the Honors College provides students with a curriculum in general education that allows them to fast-track their requirements and move quickly into their major studies. This is all accomplished in an enriching academic and social environment that enhances their experiences at Mason.

A Unique Learning Environment

Learning from some of the most distinguished faculty at the university, Honors students are mentored, advised and instructed by professors such as Linda Schwartzstein, vice provost for academic affairs; Padhu Seshaiyer, associate professor of mathematical sciences; and Carma Hinton, Robinson Professor of Visual Culture and Chinese Studies.

In their first semester, students are required to take HNRS 110: Research Methods, which lays the foundation for their university education. In this course, students learn about research practices across the disciplines – including humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, economics, management and law. Students also choose research questions that reflect their particular interests and learn how to think independently, imaginatively and ethically.

Students are encouraged to take advantage of the opportunities available to them through the Postgraduate Fellowships and Scholarships program, which guides Mason undergraduates and recent graduates through the application process; and the Undergraduate Apprenticeship Program (UAP), which funds students working with faculty mentors on original research or a creative project. Both programs are directed by LaNitra Berger.

Some of the research projects students pursued this summer through the UAP include Paula Salamoun’s “Anatomy of a Court Room: Civilian Jury Decision Making vs. Military Commission Decision Making”; Judith Kelly’s “The Occoquan Workhouse Display Project”; and Sarah Parham’s “Exploring Juvenile Diversion Programs.”

Learning Extends Outside the Classroom

The Living-Learning Community (LLC), which houses more than 250 freshmen and 70 upper-level students in campus residence halls is another important component of the Honors College. The LLC offers students myriad academic, social and leadership opportunities on and off campus.

Students holding a discussion in an Honors class. Photo by Creative Services

“The LLC is beneficial to all honors students because it allows them to get to know one another and develop a common ground,” says David Anderson, LLC coordinator. “In addition, the LLC promotes a holistic view of learning and teaching. It gives students opportunities to work and interact with each other and professors outside of the classroom.”

Some of the LLC activities include a monthly current events series with Mason professors; a partnership with the Mason Learning Into Future Environments (LIFE) Program to create a book club; and a collaboration with the Office of Student Housing and Residence Life to help resident advisors build community in the residence halls.

The University Scholars

From among the candidates invited to be part of the Honors College, a small group of approximately 25 of the most outstanding students are selected each year for the University Scholars Program, a four-year, merit-based undergraduate scholarship program and Mason’s highest academic distinction. The total number of students in the program is about 90.

While University Scholars enjoy the same benefits as honors students, such as the LLC and opportunities for academic and social activities, they also have the advantage of receiving personal guidance from Scholars Program Director Anthony Hoefer. Working with students over their four years at Mason, Hoefer plans to develop new programs that complement what students are learning in their courses.

Plans for the Future

As the Honors College continues to grow and define itself on campus, several initiatives that will enhance students’ learning experiences at Mason are in the works.

Linda Schwartzstein and Honors College students at the Celebration of Partnerships and Scholarship. Photo by Creative Services

Though still in the development phase, the Faculty Mentorship Program will bring 16 faculty liaisons into the residence halls to work with honors students in an academic and social capacity.

Some of the faculty members who have volunteered to participate are Michelle Marks, associate provost of graduate programs, and Rick Davis, associate provost of undergraduate education.

The Honors College also has plans to launch a partnership in the fall called Honors College Connects with Leadership Fairfax, a nonprofit dedicated to finding, training and growing leaders in Northern Virginia. This project will bring volunteer opportunities to Honors College students and allow them to cultivate community-oriented leadership skills.

“Even as our graduates prepare for success in their chosen fields, I hope that every student also leaves Mason with a sense that they’ve been really challenged,” says Burr. “In addition, I want them to understand their responsibility to the larger community and the value of being a part of an intellectual community.”

For more information about the Honors College, visit the website.

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