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Roosvelt's Honors Program is celebrating its 15th year of offering students an enriched academic curriculum that is designed to harness their passions and help them discover their true callings.
Four years ago Alexander Sewell, a political science major and a member of Roosevelt University’s Honors Program, declared that he “wanted to devote his life to public service like Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt,” the University’s namesakes. For Sewell, that was not just hyperbole, but a goal he intended to meet, and has.
Today he is executive assistant to United States Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana handling administrative duties and managing special projects for the tenth most effective legislator in the Senate, according to Congress.org, a nonpartisan website. And before joining her Washington, D.C., office in July 2012, he worked in the Obama Administration as a briefing book coordinator.
Sewell, 25, readily attributes part of his political success to Roosevelt and the Honors Program. "I've been able to take what I learned in the Honors Program and apply it to my responsibilities in government,” he said. “My ability to think critically, analyze important issues through a diverse lens and understand the complex nuances of policy-making, particularly in urban communities, was honed in the Metropolitan Issues Concentration of the Honors Program.”
Sewell’s accomplishments are exactly what Theodore Gross, president emeritus of Roosevelt, had in mind when he created the Honors Program 15 years ago. Started as a metropolitan-focused center of excellence, the Honors Program now is recognized for developing leaders in a variety of disciplines by offering talented undergraduate students enriched interdisciplinary courses and faculty-led research opportunities.
The Honors Program also was one of the University’s first initiatives designed to increase the number of traditional-age students. The Schaumburg Campus had just opened in 1996 and the Chicago Campus, while busy at night, needed more full-time students during the day. In the initial class there were 42 honors students, mostly at the Chicago Campus. Now there are a total of 160 honors students, according to Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Sam Rosenberg, who has directed the program since 1998. In the fall 2013 semester, Roosevelt had the largest recruitment class in the program’s history with 62 new honors students. The University’s goal is to increase that to 75 each year.
Most honors students have test scores and high school grade point averages well above average, but those are just part of the criteria considered for selection. “Honors at Roosevelt is designed for students who are determined to learn and committed to making positive contributions to their communities,” said Megan Bernard, who was hired as assistant director of the Honors Program in 2012. “Doing well in advanced placement calculus is great, but the program also emphasizes education as a resource for solving complex social problems. We don’t only ask students to do what they’re good at; we ask that they prepare to do what they value.”
Bernard and Rosenberg point out that students in Roosevelt’s Honors Program are typical Roosevelt students. “They have the same backgrounds and financial challenges as other students,” Rosenberg said. Although Roosevelt doesn’t offer special scholarships for honors students, many receive financial support from the University because of need or prior academic accomplishments.
For Sewell, the program’s admission process made a huge difference. “The truth is, Dr. Rosenberg took a chance on me given my previous academic background,” he said. “He explained that the program was rigorous and I assured him that I was committed to succeeding because I was so enthused by the curriculum and the prospect of joining a cohort of students with similar educational goals.”
Being part of a learning community, or cohort, always has been one of the most important aspects of the Honors Program. Students move through the curriculum as a group and take at least one class together each semester. Rosenberg said that by knowing their classmates well and working on similar projects, honors students develop a sense of community that enriches their experiences at Roosevelt. This, he believes, is one of the reasons that the Honors Program currently has a much higher retention rate than the University as a whole.
Marina Denischik, a 2006 Roosevelt alumna who is now a PhD candidate in philosophy at Boston College, said, “There is little chance I would have pursued my love of literary studies if I did not happen to be part of Roosevelt’s Honors Program. To put it succinctly, as an honors student, you have a chance to discover your true calling in life. You make this discovery under the guidance of superb teachers and mentors. For me, the program was not only a life-enriching experience but a life-changing experience. And now that I have college students of my own as a teaching fellow, I often reflect on what I learned from the Roosevelt University Honors Program professors.”
Associate Professor of Biology Norbert Cordeiro is a big supporter of the program because he finds the students to be selfmotivated and disciplined. “These students tend to ask insightful questions and are willing to stretch the academic fields beyond the normal boundaries,” he said. Cordeiro said he doesn’t change his classroom in-struction very much for honors students. “I only encourage discussion and those students who want to persevere and enrich themselves do the rest.”
Under his direction, honors students Lee Swanson and Rasheed Sanyaolu conducted a field research experiment on a songbird species in Illinois, which led to an article in an international, peer-reviewed journal in 2012. Honors student Jamie Quicho used her biology training and artistic abilities to develop and enhance biological images of African trees for an online database and search tool Cordeiro is developing through the Encyclopedia of Life.
Another honors student who has found the program an ideal way to connect with a faculty member and participate in research is Jocelyn Dunlop, a senior majoring in history. She is working with University Historian and former Arts and Sciences Dean Lynn Weiner who is writing a book about the history of Roosevelt University. “At a larger school or without the Honors Program, I would never have had such a fantastic and career-enriching opportunity,” she said.
Their work is part of Roosevelt’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. Functioning like an academic internship,it allows honors students to be paid for working as research assistants on faculty members’ projects. This is a unique opportunity for undergraduate students and provides invaluable preparation for graduate programs, law school, medical school and other professional programs.
Honors students are able to take selected upper division seminars outside of their main field of study without having the prerequisite courses. As a result, in a 300-level honors sociology class, biologists, chemists, sociologists, writers and history majors may be mixed together. This produces, what Bernard calls, “collaborative inquiry,” since everyone doesn’t have the same base level of knowledge about the subject. “It’s not just learning the material, it’s how can this class test me beyond my grasp intellectually and academically?” she explained.
And that is one of the features that Assistant Professor David Faris, an expert on political change in Egypt, likes about the program. “We have a wide range of students at Roosevelt, which is one of our strengths, but the Honors Program allows our highest-performing students the opportunity to share classrooms together and to take courses beyond their chosen major. It is therefore in many ways both interdisciplinary and accelerated,” he said.
A good example of that was an honors economics class Rosenberg taught several years ago called Race, Ethnicity and Urban Labor Markets. It looked at inequality from sociological, economic and political perspectives. More recently, last fall Economics Professor Steve Ziliak taught a new honors course called What is Social Justice? to explore theories of justice and ethics. Other honors courses have included a political science course on transportation, a Spanish course on immigration, an English course on Chicago literature, an education course on public schools in cities and a gender studies course on the politics of fashion.
Although most students enter the Honors Program as freshmen, some are transfer students and others join after doing well as freshmen or sophomores at Roosevelt. Eleanor Peck, director of communications and member relations for the Niagara Foundation, joined the Honors Program as a junior transfer student so she took six honors courses, compared to the usual 10. One of them was Bethany Barratt’s popular class on wrongful convictions, which had a study abroad component in the United Kingdom. “The Honors Program, for me,” she said, “was a great way to learn things different from what I was studying as a political science major.”
The Honors Program concludes with an original thesis or project. “By the end of their experience, students should be able to do a substantial original piece of work,” Rosenberg said. “It could be writing a play or short stories, or conducting research about high school graduation rates.” The students present their projects at a luncheon honoring their accomplishments at the end of each academic term. Another way honors students are recognized is at graduation. They are cited in the program and wear an emerald green cord.
Executive Vice President and University Provost Douglas Knerr said the hallmark of the Honors Program is that it has always been on the leading edge of positive change at Roosevelt. “Its robust and mission-centric curriculum engages students and faculty in the best practices in undergraduate education, particularly student-faculty research,” he said. “And during the past 15 years, it has produced many student leaders at Roosevelt and alumni who have gone on to successful careers across the globe.”
In fact, honors students have become doctors, dentists, professors, attorneys, philosophers, politicians and leaders in other professions. Rosenberg has kept in touch with many of them. Wendy Maier-Sarti, for example, is professor of history and coordinator of the Jewish Studies Program at Oakton Community College; Jeffrey Bingham, formerly an investment analyst for Deutsche Bank, received an MBA from the University of Chicago, a master’s degree in divinity from Yale University and is currently studying for a law degree from Northwestern University; and Joanna Jose, who graduated from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and attended Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University for her residency in infectious disease.
They, along with other honors alumni, current students, faculty and staff, were invited to celebrate the Honor’s Program 15th anniversary event on April 4.
As she reflects on the Honors Program and the more than 675 people who have participated in it, Bernard believes that the program has been successful because it prepares students to confront challenges. “We want honors students to struggle while they’re here and never stop struggling,” she said. “Our goal is to help them build resilience and prepare them to fight for the things they really care about.”