Contributor: Stephen M. Smith, PhD.

I bet you are familiar with the buzzwords and catchphrases of higher education – engagement, globalization, leadership, community, collaboration, academic excellence. Each gets tossed around periodically as if it were a revolutionary idea. Often they are paid only lip service; they are, however, all very accurate descriptors of our university Honors Program.  Founded in 1995, our mission has been simple: to provide an enriched experience for an exceptionally bright and motivated subset of our (mostly bright and motivated) student body. For twenty years we have done so by offering extracurricular experiences such as field trips and conferences, facilitating study abroad, forcing students to exit their comfort zones on and off campus, and requiring all of them to achieve at a high level or face removal from the program.  The Honors Program isn’t designed to be a PR machine; we prefer to fly under the radar for the most part, and the university has done a nice job accommodating us in this respect.  But somehow the word gets out, and a lot of intelligent students find out about us. Some simply learned from high school counselors that any college worth its salt has a program like this, whether it is called an Honors Program or an Honors College.

One reason that the Honors Program is important is so that UNG can compete for the high ability students in the region who desire an Honors option in their college choice.  High ability students do more than raise our SAT average – they raise the bar for all of their classmates and help maintain the level of rigor for which the University has long been known.

Consistent with the school’s rich history of training people to be leaders, our Program requires each member to hold some kind of significant leadership position while in college. They don’t earn the title Honors Program graduate unless they do so, and thus the Honors Program also provides a steady supply of potential leaders who are also successful as students. Moreover, we now require our students to complete an Honors Thesis, a significant scholarly contribution that represents leadership in a very different sense.

Some programs hand students money by virtue of showing up on campus as freshmen, but our students receive no funding unless they are doing some of the “extra stuf”’ we want them to do. We offer funding for thesis projects, but also to help students experience study abroad. Our encouragement of globalization extends to granting Honors credit for courses taken internationally.  Consequently, close to 10% of our students take at least one study abroad trip.

I want to make clear that I direct an academic program. However, it does have some similarities to large social groups such as fraternities in that our members get to know one another, they make friends within the program, and they spend time socializing with these friends (and yes, we provide some opportunities specifically geared to that). More importantly, they care about and provide support for one another – emotionally, academically, and even physically.  They form study groups together, they do community service together – 1700 hours of it last semester on the Dahlonega campus alone – they tutor one another, they celebrate each other’s birthdays, they share research ideas and sometimes just plan whimsical ideas, and they vent about their classes to one another (yes, they are human).  Other groups do similar things, but those other groups don’t have an 80% four year graduation rate or a 3.6 collective GPA.

The Honors Program welcomes high achievers and rewards those who decide to do more. If we are, as our mission statement reads, trying to ‘provide a culture of academic excellence,’ then its presence is an essential part of our mission.