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The Bright Stuff

The Rochester Institute of Technology Honors Program is one of the best-kept secrets on campus. In its third year, the program has fostered a community of exceptionally bright and active students who thrive on leadership opportunities, personal development and community service.

Catherine Winnie

“It’s a different kind of student who joins the honors program,” says Catherine Winnie, director of RIT’s Office of Academic Enhancement Programs. “These students are accomplished and engaged in the community. They don’t want to report to the CEO; they want to be the CEO.”

President Albert Simone and Provost Stanley McKenzie envisioned the special academic and leadership program that launched in 2002 after two pilot years and considerable student input. Since then, RIT’s Office of Enrollment Management and Career Services has invited the top 5 percent of each incoming class to apply to the program.

“I am tremendously pleased at the interest in and growth of the honors program, and especially the innovative courses and activities being developed by the colleges for the honors program students,” McKenzie says. “We know this program is making a difference in the choices of some prospective students to come to RIT.”

The program now boasts 321 students, with up to 125 additions each year. Winnie expects the number will reach 500 to 600 students at full size.

“The chance for a student to have a say in the development of a major academic initiative is a rare one and the lessons learned through that simply cannot come any other way.”

Jason Selleck ’04

Winnie joined RIT in 2001 to guide the office of academic enhancement programs, created to oversee the honors, fellowship and study abroad programs. She took over from Lawrence Belle, special assistant to the provost, who had researched successful counterparts across the country.

Winnie believes the honors program offers a broad university education without creating an elitist environment and that “arrogance is not part of the program.” She cites benefits that spill over to the rest of the RIT community – seats in honors classes are open to non-honors students, and new courses designed for the program may eventually become part of the regular curriculum.

“It’s still evolving, growing,” says Laurence Winnie, assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts and college advocate since 2000 (the Winnies are married). “If anything it has been an opportunity not just for students, but for people who have been involved with the program. It’s given us an opportunity to shape things, and we’ve shaped things
for the good.”

Do you believe in magic?

For their midterm exam, students in a new class called “Magic, Science and Technology” became magicians and presented classic magic routines before classmates and guests. Shown here are Scott Bynton (top left) in the character of a nerdy mentalist; Zachary Panitzke helps Jill Zapoticznyj (top right) prepare for her performance; Jessi Mills (middle left) doing a classic rope trick; Andrew Gianfagna (middle right) as a slightly sleazy card reader; and Dean Ganskop (bottom) demonstrating telepathic powers.

Pioneering efforts
Student involvement has been critical to the program’s success through course and annual program evaluations, representation on the honors student council and a presence at meetings of the college advocates, the faculty or administrative representatives. The students plan group activities, quarterly dinners with faculty and staff, and maintain their own Web site (www.honors.rit.edu). Special honors student housing is also available in Francis Baker Hall for freshmen and sophomores.

Jason Selleck ’04 (public policy) and Jeffrey Burger ’04 (management information systems) were involved with the program during its first pilot year.

“My favorite aspect was being involved in the shaping of the program and its goals,” says Selleck, an officer in the U.S. Air Force stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. “I was able to participate in a committee that researched similar programs at other institutions and presented our findings and recommendations to the president and provost of RIT. The chance for a student to have a say in the development of a major academic initiative is a rare one and the lessons learned through that simply cannot come any other way.”

Burger agrees. “Leadership experience was, by far, the most important component of the program for me.” Burger, a software engineer at Network Solutions in Herndon, Va., took advantage of several opportunities such as co-facilitating a First Year Enrichment Honors course, serving as a mentor to honors students during freshmen orientation, serving as the College of Business representative to the student-run honors council and attending the National Collegiate Honors Council conference in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Challenges and opportunities
RIT’s honors program blends academics, leadership and service with a professional career-oriented emphasis. All students take honors general education classes in COLA and the College of Science and, in some cases, special classes offered by their respective colleges.

Jeffrey Burger '04

To graduate from the program, students must have a 3.6 grade point average and fulfill an annual complementary learning requirement, which involves service, volunteerism and leadership outside of the classroom. Planned activities within each college further cultivate students’ professional and leadership development. For example, upper-level students have opportunities to participate in undergraduate research, professional trips and conferences, and to obtain membership in professional organizations.

Honors classes are typically small and are taught in a seminar format.
Some have intriguing titles like “Internet America – A History of Communication Cultures from Print to Computer” or “Religion – the Problem of Evil,” promising a different perspective on material covered in general survey classes.

Deborah Blizzard’s new class, “Magic, Science and Technology” gave students a different context in which to think about belief patterns. For their midterm exam, students were asked to develop and perform a classic magic routine in character.

“I wanted to give them the opportunity to not just think like a magician, but to embody that experience of creating magic. And to see the look in someone’s eyes when you make something unreal real,” says Blizzard, assistant professor of science, technology and society, amateur magician and member of the Academy of Magical Arts.

Above all, the honors program builds a community of engaged and bright students. On a big campus, it gives students a sense of belonging.

“The honors program has given me a lot of leadership opportunities (council, committee chair, and college rep),” says Jessi Mills, second-year graphic design major. “The thing that I value most, though, is the friendships that I have built within the honors program as a community.”

Incentives and choices
The program has its perks for the students who participate. These include an annual $1,000 scholarship, $500 travel scholarships to attend international conferences or to help offset study abroad expenses, and a waiver of class-overload fees. Another advantage is the one-day advance registration that helps students schedule classes required for the honors program as well as for their degree program.
Perks aside, the expectations are high for these students and their commitment level is monitored. “If not on top of their grades and doing complementary learning activities, they may be put on probation,” Catherine Winnie says. “Sometimes we have to withdraw students from the program.”

Although the honors program carries additional obligations and opportunities, students say the system allows plenty of freedom of choice.
“The wonderful thing about the program is that you are only as involved as you want to be,” says Blair Brown, a third-year environmental science student and vice president of the honors council. “Some people cling to their honors friends and honors housing like a fraternity, while others barely mention their membership in the program. I find myself somewhere in the middle; I love attending honors activities, but I also have many friends of similar values and goals who are outside of the program.”

Susan Gawlowicz '95

More information about the RIT Honors Program can be found at www.rit.edu/honors.