BY SHANNON WILEY
A new plan to make Salisbury University’s Bellavance Honors Program an Honors College by Fall 2016 was approved by the University System of Maryland last month, allowing the program to transform itself into a more open and accessible place.
“One of the reasons it’s coming about now is the growth of the program, and our attempt to diversify the program,” Honors Director James Buss said. “The goal of honors is to take students who would like to take an extra challenge and make the most of their (academic) college experience by taking enriched courses (and) by participating in enrichment activities.”
Since the fall of 2013 when Buss became director of the program, it has grown from 214 students to 350, along with a change from primarily hosting liberal arts students to now having many from business and the natural sciences programs, as well as most other majors across campus.
For next year, projections show that with recruitment and continued retention and graduation rates, the college will have 400 students in the fall.
“It’s about the diversity of that student experience,” Buss said. Since the program’s inception over 35 years ago, Buss said that it has worked really well with students who are majoring in the liberal arts because the core of its courses were in the humanities, English, history and social science, with only one in a natural science and very rarely one in business.
“So the idea was, how do we create an honors experience or enrichment that works with all majors across campus,” he said. “And in order to do that, a solution (was found) working with faculty, faculty senate and with student input over the last two and a half years was to create an Honors College with an opportunity for multiple honors programs that would work with different student populations on campus.”
Although Bellavance Honors is not sure yet what these programs would look like, Buss has met over the past two years with chairs and faculty of academic departments to see what would make the Honors College accessible to their students.
One way that the programs could change opportunities for students would be fighting the difficulties of students with credit-heavy or more structured majors, such as creating honors sections of already existing classes.
“From what I’ve heard about it I’m really happy it’s going to be more open to the different programs that we offer on campus,” junior Frances Sherlock said.
Sherlock is the Honors Student Association president as well as the “Saunterer” Honors Newsletter editor.
“When I came in as a business student, there was a little bit of hesitancy to be a business student and be in honors because of how rigorous or how many classes you have to take in business, trying to fit honors in with that.”
“I think it will be a more supportive environment,” sophomore honors student Dana Day, a double major in Psychology and Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution said, “and it will be more accessible throughout the years.”
Another goal of opening up the program to a college is to encourage students who did not start out at SU in the honors program but may want to get involved or take a few classes.
“I feel like there will be more ways to get into it if there was a whole big program,” Day said.
Buss has been with the program for two and a half years this winter and has been working on making the transition ever since he took the position.
In 2010 SU completed a study to determine whether the school should make the switch. Three years later when Buss was hired, they asked him to explore this question, as well.
At the conclusion of his research he came up with the same conclusion as the school, to create an Honors College and many of the same reasons before even looking at the school’s report.
Buss sits on the National Assessment and Evaluations Committee for the National Collegiate Honors Council, which looks at honors programs and colleges as well as develops the language that defines each, and as such has traveled around the country observing honors programs and colleges. Likewise, he has served as an honors director at other universities.
Through his observations as well as studying the “Best Characteristics,” determined by the National Collegiate Honors Council, Buss determined that in many ways, Bellavance Honors Program was already an Honors College.
As of June 2014, SU met all 17 characteristics of an Honors Program, as well as 9 of the 13 characteristics of an Honors College. By fall of 2016, they are set to meet the last four.
One of the major obstacles, Buss said, in planning the honors college has been scale, or “growing pains.”
“We grew very quickly,” he said. “We had our Halloween party here for the first time two and a half years ago and I think we had 15 people show up, a nice, small event we had in the front room here. And we had it the other weekend and almost 80 students showed up. So it’s hard to predict those things when in only two years you go from 15 to 80 students that come to an event, or when we invite a speaker to campus and we out grew the space that we could host those in.”
Despite this rapid growth, Buss and staff are expecting the 400 students they are expecting for this coming fall will be the rough size of the college as it moves forward.
“I think the biggest obstacle is already done,” Sherlock said. “Now it’s just the little stuff like assigning staff, putting it into stone, what the actual college will look like, recruiting students based on this new model, maybe finding a new space because I don’t know if we’re going to stay in this house. I think the biggest part is over, convincing everyone that this is what we need to do and now it’s just ‘how are we going to do it.’”