CAS Honors Program offers both challenge and community to top undergraduates
By Tim Stoddard
When Stephanie Dutchen was deciding where to go to college four years ago, BU's College of Arts and Sciences stood out among others, in part because of its Honors Program for academically outstanding freshmen and sophomores. “Part of my decision to come to BU was based on financial aid,” says Dutchen (CAS'04, COM'04), a double major in English and journalism and a Trustee Scholar. “But I was also concerned about being plunked down in the middle of a giant school with no community I would be a part of. When I found out about the Honors Program — where you take smaller classes and get to know your professors and the people in your discussion groups better — I said, ‘That sounds good to me.'”
Now in its 10th year, the CAS Honors Program continues to attract academically elite students like Dutchen to Boston University. Every spring, the top 10 percent of students admitted to CAS are invited into the program, which is designed to give them an enriched curriculum during their first two years of study. Freshmen who do not qualify for the program may apply to enter at the end of their first year if they've maintained at least a 3.5 grade point average.
Unlike honors programs at many other universities, the CAS program is not a separate college within a college. “It's a special pathway within our general curriculum, giving the students a chance to fulfill their breadth requirements in small classes with other top students and leading faculty members, where they enjoy extra challenges,” says Dean of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey Henderson, who was the founding director of the program and oversaw its first eight years.
An enticing honors menu
During their freshman and sophomore years, students take a total of four honors courses, normally one each semester. In most CAS departments, these courses are special discussion sections that are part of large lectures open to all CAS students. The honors discussion sections are all taught by faculty rather than graduate students. For Dutchen, who took honors courses in classical mythology, psychology, eastern religions, and earth sciences, these discussions fulfilled her divisional requirements in a stimulating way. “The professors were amazing,” she says. “The other students clearly wanted to be there. You take the class because you're interested in the subject matter, and you take the honors course because you want to learn more than you would in the regular sections.”
Kevin Bryan (CAS'06), a sophomore economics major, had a similar experience taking an honors physics course with Nobel prizewinning physicist Sheldon Glashow, a University Professor and the Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Physics. “Our honors section had only three people in it, so we went to his office, which was pretty cool,” Bryan says. “We went over quantum theory and all the really advanced 20th-century physics, without going into the math. It's nice to know what these topics are now without having to take 10 physics classes first.”
Honors students now have over 80 courses to choose from, and not all of them are connected with introductory lecture courses. “Often faculty are quite creative in forming new kinds of honors courses,” says Bonnie Costello, a CAS professor of English and director of the Honors Program. “In computer science, for instance, a project evolved that the students and faculty wanted to continue, so they developed an honors section to do that. It's a wonderful opportunity for faculty to offer quite innovative courses to freshmen and sophomores.”
Working closely with professors in the first two years also lays a foundation for more advanced study later on. “By having an extra meeting each week, they're getting to work with senior faculty early on in their experience,” says Jocelyn Emerson, the program's associate director. “They're getting a heightened level of discourse among their peers in that honors section, and a good chance for them to work with faculty in their prospective majors.”
The honors courses naturally involve more work. “The enriched curriculum is designed to help these students get the most out of their education,” says Emerson. “That does not imply that the regular curriculum is not challenging, however, because it is. These students are just getting additional work on top of that.” If the students complete their four courses by the end of their junior year with an overall GPA of 3.3 and a grade of B or higher in each honors course, they'll graduate with College Honors noted on their transcripts.
Teaching honors courses is also extra work for faculty. “But we take it on because the students are fantastic and it's a great recruitment tool for our departments,” says Costello, who teaches an honors poetry class. “I think that's something impressive about BU, that faculty are willing to go this extra mile for their students.”
Out of the classroom
In the past decade, the Honors Program has also provided a number of extracurricular resources, starting with a weekend retreat to Sargent Center for Outdoor Education in New Hampshire for entering freshmen. The program has its own student association, which organizes expeditions to Walden Pond, the New England Aquarium, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, local theaters, and the Boston Ballet. The association distributes an online newsletter, Nuntius, twice a semester to all honors faculty and students. A faculty talk series allows professors to meet with honors students in a relaxed setting and share their current work and interests, and larger events are also sponsored by the program, such as the recent reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Glück.The goal of these extracurricular offerings is to create a sense of community among high-achieving BU students. About 100 honors freshmen and sophomores choose to live in one of the honors houses on Bay State Road and Carlton Street. “All in all, the program is a wonderful way to provide a special kind of community-within-a-community in our large and complex college,” says Henderson. Indeed, that's what attracted Dutchen to BU four years ago. “You show up at this school with thousands of people you don't know,” she says, “and then you meet the other honors people in a class or on a trip. It helps you feel more comfortable here. It's a nice feeling.”