It has been an interesting time to take the reins of the University Honors Program. Since the beginning of my service as Director, our Honors community has faced unprecedented challenges with which we are all too familiar. We have had to adapt the cornerstone of Honors—our community—to a world of Zoom conversations and Brightspace forums. We’ve relearned how to teach, to learn, and to support one another. We have heard important calls from within our community to honestly face and work to rectify longstanding injustices in our culture, our values, and our practices. Much has changed in these brief months.
In meeting some of these demands, we, like many, have done the best we can. “Virtual,” in my opinion, is never how Honors should be done. Yet, our community has faced adversity with optimism and creativity. I have been inspired by the resiliency of our students and their commitment to maintaining community across vast physical distances. From our first-year students, who have never taken a class on the Bluff or met each other in person but have nevertheless woven strong interpersonal bonds, to our continuing students, who know too well the loss of not being on campus but still find ways to thrive and mentor our first-year students, to our faculty, who continue their tradition of excellence in teaching and mentorship despite doing so from their living rooms while juggling domestic or parental responsibilities, I am continually impressed.
In other cases, we have seized unique opportunities for improvement. In our ongoing discussions of race and racism within Honors, we heard brave and honest student feedback that Honors is perceived as a white space. This perception comes from many places—actual student demographics, faculty representation in Honors courses, the kinds of events Honors holds and which students attend, and our overall community culture. In response to these calls, we have looked at the turmoil of 2020-2021 as a chance to try new things. First, we were able to reimagine Honors “passports” to focus almost exclusively on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Additionally, because we had new leaders in both Honors and LMU Admissions and because COVID made traditional testing impossible, we were able to rethink the Honors application process from top to bottom. We opened the top of the funnel as wide as possible by inviting every LMU applicant to apply to Honors and employing no quantitative screens; we rewrote all Honors application and marketing materials to eliminate elitist and exclusionary language; we reduced procedural application barriers, and we reached out specifically to traditionally underrepresented populations with extra encouragement to apply. As we move through the application review process, the incoming class for the fall of 2021 promises to be the most diverse cohort ever, full of vibrant, engaged, intensely curious students.
Despite everything, some things about Honors have not changed. Most notably, our students continue to be committed to scholarship, to a love of learning and the cultivation of curiosity, and to the pursuit of new knowledge. COVID disrupted many summer research plans—but our students adapted, submitting new proposals for remote research. Last summer, Honors funded twenty research projects, with more throughout the academic year. Honors students have created video games to explore and teach morality, crafted homemade shoes to capture and artistically display acrobatic movement, studied the effectiveness of machine learning tools, analyzed the movements and behavior of coyotes in Culver City, and the list goes on. Our students continue to impress in their desire to push themselves and the boundaries of human understanding, and our faculty mentors continue to inspire with their devotion to student scholarship and exploration. Our community of donors continues to generously support our students despite financially challenging times, helping Honors to achieve its most successful Day of Giving ever—funds that will be instrumental in supporting future student research, financial aid, and community-building.
Another aspect that has remained steadfast is the purpose and value of Honors at LMU. There have been important discussions recently about our place in this institution. What is Honors at LMU? What is the value of Honors? Is it necessary? Beneficial? Inescapably elitist? Or something else?
These are important questions. Necessary questions. And they are questions that directly guide my vision for Honors over the coming years:
In education, we must meet students where they are. There is no sense in engaging students well beyond or behind where they are or trying to engage them in issues about which they have no passion or interest. I believe the purpose of the University Honors Program is to meet LMU’s uniquely engaged, curious, and passionate students where they are, and to offer them the classes, the opportunities, and the community that they will magnify their potential.
Some view Honors as exclusionary, divisive, and privileged. This view is founded on the notion that getting into and graduating out of the Honors Program is the culminating step of student success. I vehemently disagree. I believe that our students’ place in Honors is not the final step in a life of accomplishment but the step first in a life of service. It is not a badge of honor, but an awesome responsibility. It is the invitation to reimagine the world and the preparation to realize that vision. To those who view Honors as elitist and exclusionary, my hope and vision are that our students will prove you wrong. Rather, they will demonstrate that what makes Honors truly special is not early registration or a gold tassel, but the values and mission that we all embody and demonstrate every day—our commitment to creating a better world for all.
To our Honors students: You were not selected for this program because we thought it would be good for you. Obviously, it is. But no; you were selected for this program because we believe this program will make you better for us—not us in the Honors program, but all of us. You alone can show what Honors truly is by using the opportunities that this program offers not to better yourself, but to better yourself in order to better the lives of others.
To our faculty: As you well know, Honors is not just a place to have great fun teaching bright, passionate minds—even though of course it is. Honors embodies our responsibility to make good on our commitment to these bright young scholars. To mold, to nurture, to support, to amplify, to focus, to propel. To be kind, but challenging. To demand excellence while caring for whole persons. To leverage, as the Proposed LMU Strategic Plan states, “the flexibility of the University Honors Program curriculum as a laboratory for innovation in interdisciplinary teaching and learning.” To instill the others-centered values we need to create the world we want.
So, who needs an Honors program? Everyone does. The world does. Because the world needs the combination of expertise, attention, and individual focus our community can offer; our energy, passions, curiosity, talents, and shared commitment to a better future.
The first nine months have been a whirlwind. I am committed and excited to continuing the important work to improve our program and make it a truly inclusive, others-centered space. I know I can count on our community to help and support us on this journey, and for that I thank you!
Trevor Zink, Ph.D.
Director, University Honors Program