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Notre Dame has launched an honors program for incoming freshmen.
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Notre Dame Launches Honors Program

Two years ago, Associate Professor of Philosophy Ken Palko read one of the best essays a student had ever written for one of his classes in 17 years. Palko lauded the student for her graduate-level work in class. The next day, the student walked into Palko’s office asking him to never single her out again in front of her classmates.

Initially confused about her reaction, Palko realized the student was part of a culture in which it’s “cool to be dumb,” one in which you don’t fit in if you are smart. Disturbed by his discovery, Palko stood up at the College’s general meeting a few months later proposing an honors program for exceptional students.

Two years later, Notre Dame has launched that honors program.

Ken Palko will teach an honors philosophy class in the spring. Photo: Christian Taske '07A college-wide effort involving faculty, staff and students, the program was developed by an ad-hoc committee of the College’s Educational Policy and Planning Committee, which reviews and recommends changes to the curriculum. It was approved by the faculty senate under leadership of Faculty President Sandy Grassman.

Sixteen of the College’s 360 freshmen are currently enrolled in the pilot program. To qualify, they had to hold an ACT/SAT score and high school GPA that were among the top five percent of the freshman class. Once admitted to the program, the students must take a minimum of 12 credits and maintain a 3.5 GPA.  

The honors scholars will take special classes throughout their time at Notre Dame. This fall, they are enrolled in an honors section of the College’s Freshman Year Initiative course; next semester, they will take Palko’s honors version of his Philosophy 200: Critical Thinking class. Students will take up to eight honors classes by the time they graduate.

“We want to provide a learning community for people who make academics a priority during their college experience,” says Dr. Mary Breckenridge, vice president for academic affairs. “Students who think seriously about the ‘life of the mind’ focus their energies on academic engagement and scholarship. In an honors program this engagement occurs in coursework, extracurricular activities and in mentoring relationships with faculty.”

Being accepted into the program carries many benefits for the honors students. They will receive priority registration, an honors designation on their transcripts upon successful completion of a course, and an honors medallion to be conferred at the graduation ceremony. Throughout the program, students will interact with faculty in a mentoring relationship.

“We want to celebrate learning in this program,” Palko says. “Exceptional work is to be expected in the honors classes.”

Palko himself graduated from an honors program at Kent State University. The benefits of such a program far exceed special recognition on transcripts, he says.

Sam Vail says he enjoys the academic challenge in the honors program. Photo: Christian Taske '07“Because of the atmosphere in class, I found myself wanting to do more,” he says. “When you push yourself beyond what you think you can do intellectually, it creates a sense of satisfaction.”

Students in the honors program will have the opportunity to reach their full intellectual potential, Palko says. He expects the depth of thinking to exceed that in his regular classes.

“We can only go so deep before we start losing half the class. As a teacher you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I keep pushing forward or do I slow down?’” he says. “In an honors program you can get to places you don’t get to in the regular sections.”

In his critical thinking class, Palko plans to discuss challenging topics he hasn’t tackled in years, such as symbolic logic. He plans to encourage independent learning by removing restrictions on papers and limiting guidance on readings.

“Instead of giving students a word limit on a paper I can tell them to use their best judgment,” he says. “But you need a group of students willing to accept that responsibility.”

Dean of Online Educational Services Dr. Rob Davis, who teaches the honors Freshman Year Institute, says his students have been willing to accept that responsibility. Their writing is above average, their attendance rate nearly perfect, and they seem to have developed a much more tight-knit community, Dr. Davis says.

“In our forums, the depth of information sharing is tremendous,” says Dr. Davis, who asks his students to relate the book “Three Cups of Tea” to current events as well as their personal lives and share their insights on the course website.

“In the honors classes, we seek to provide a more rigorous program without doing more busy work,” he says.

Mariya Smith is one of 16 students in the honors program. Photo: Christian Taske '07Sam Vail, one of the honors students, enjoys this more demanding learning environment. “It’s more challenging because you have to think outside the box,” he says. “The honors Freshman Year Institute makes you think about the world and how it works.”

Vail, who graduated from Lancaster High School with a 4.1 GPA, says that his classmates also seem to like the challenge. Participation is high and group discussions rather than lectures dominate the class sessions, Vail says.

Vail, who is majoring in communication, says that being in the honors program will help him with his regular classes as well and hopefully make him more marketable when he enters the job market. 

Fellow honors student Mariya Smith, who graduated from Okemos High School in Michigan, says being in an honors program not only looks wonderful on the transcript but is a positive challenge.

“If there's no challenge, then how do I know I'm improving?” she says. “The program will challenge me to be the best student I can be.”

By Christian Taske ’07, editor and writer at Notre Dame College.