History professor Mark Metzler Sawin – at the podium addressing prospective honors students and their parents – has directed EMU's Honors Program since 2011. (Photo by Lindsey Kolb)

Honors program attracts students who share ‘vigor and enthusiasm for education’

Ask senior Aaron Erb to name the quality he appreciates most about his four-year experience in the Honors Program, and he begins with people.

“This program has added so much depth to my college experience,” he says. “I’m in awe of the relationships I’ve formed across class levels within honors. These relationships have cemented my appreciation of EMU as a place filled with wonderfully curious and compassionate people.”

Intellectually stimulating, supportive relationships are the foundation of the Honors Program at Eastern Mennonite University. Launched in 1993 with five students, the program started its third decade in 2013 with 32 incoming students.

The huge investment EMU makes in this program was on full display during Honors Weekend, Feb. 7-8. Sixty-nine high school seniors admitted to EMU next year, with GPA and standardized test scores that qualify them for the honors scholarship of $15,000 per year for four years, traveled to the Harrisonburg (Va.) campus. Some flew from Arizona and Wisconsin; others walked from the adjacent neighborhood of Park View.

They were hosted by honors students, interacted with faculty members who lead the program, and began to envision their honors experience at EMU. “This program lives or dies on student enthusiasm. Our students sell it to other students,” said history professor Mark Metzler Sawin, PhD, who has directed the program since 2011.

Later entrance into program now possible

During the weekend, 56 honors-qualified students competed to be chosen one of two Yoder Scholars, who receive full-ride scholarships. Yoder Scholars are selected on the basis of their essay question responses, interviews, and interactions during honors weekend. The group from which the scholars were drawn averaged 1285 on their SATs (in critical reading and math), 29.5 on their ACTs, and 4.1 for their GPAs.

The honors program is no longer just a reward for high school performance. It is now a voluntary academic minor, and its acceptance thresholds are more inclusive. First- and second-year students who demonstrate high levels of academic achievement (but whose high school numbers did not qualify them for the honors scholarship) can apply for the program as well.

When she entered EMU, junior Becca Longenecker’s combined SAT scores and GPA were slightly below the qualifying threshold for an honors scholarship. Yet her strong academic performance in her first years at EMU gave her the confidence to apply for the honors minor in her sophomore year, and she was accepted.

Connecting to highly motivated students

“The program has helped me connect with faculty here and at other schools,” says Longenecker. “It’s also connected me with other students who have the same vigor and enthusiasm for education that I do. The program is always looking for students like me who are missed on the first round of selection to expand the program and improve the experience for the students in the program.”

“What I tell parents and students who are considering the value of EMU’s Honors Program,” says Jason Good, PhD, director of admissions, “is that we’re making a four-year commitment that goes beyond financial. Our goal is to educate the whole person, preparing them to lead in whatever field their gifts take them.”

Junior honors student Holly Jensen appreciates the “backbone” courses of the program. “Freshmen take a class called Ruling Ideas, which explores different disciplines and the ideas that ‘rule’ those disciplines. From biology to mass media, we learn how people in those disciplines work with the central ideas of their fields.”

Throughout the program, Jensen notes that students are exposed to classes outside their majors and to interests outside their chosen fields.

As an EMU honors student (graduating in 2005), Good has seen the program from the inside. He says, “The Honors Program takes a holistic look at student growth that goes beyond just academics to include an education that also challenges students personally, socially, and spiritually. Students expand their worldview and learn to think critically about the world around them. This comprehensive preparation leads to great successes for our students in graduate school, their careers, and as leaders in their communities.”

Applause for honors approach

A majority of honors graduates responding to a 2009 alumni survey “strongly agreed” with the following statements about the program:

• The honors program helped me more consciously develop a worldview.

• The courses I took within the Honors program increased my overall learning at EMU.

• The honors scholarship influenced my decision to come to EMU.

• The honors program deepened my quality of thought and insight as evidenced by critical thinking.

One described the first-year seminar experience as “stepping into a buffet of ideas. It was intoxicating at times.”

“Our Worldview senior seminar was very meaningful,” wrote another alumnus. “Never before and not since have I seen such true displays of humanity in an academic setting.”

Forty-two percent of the survey respondents indicated an educational track beyond their undergraduate degree.

Sawin champions preparing students for a wide range of academic and vocational futures: “Rather than teaching a specific set of skills for a specific content area, our goal is to prepare students to research and write about anything. With the honors program, we’re creating a liberal arts curriculum on steroids.”