Liberal Arts Honors Program Celebrates First Year of Success

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

With the close of the fall semester, the University’s Liberal Arts Honors Program (LAHP) wraps up its first year of challenging students to go beyond their comfort zones.

“The College of Liberal Arts Honors Program is a unique and important program for the college, designed to give students opportunities for team-taught courses and academic enrichment activities,” said Patricia Witherspoon, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “We believe it is a program that will help recruit outstanding students from the Paso del Norte region to UTEP and the college.”

Liberal Arts Honors Program director Michael Topp, Ph.D. (far right) poses with LAHP members in the program’s lounge in Prospect Hall. They are, from left, Luisana Duarte, Benjamin Williams, Jecoa Ross and Oscar Garza. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceLiberal Arts Honors Program director Michael Topp, Ph.D. (far right) poses with LAHP members in the program’s lounge in Prospect Hall. They are, from left, Luisana Duarte, Benjamin Williams, Jecoa Ross and Oscar Garza. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

The first year of this ambitious program has been about flexibility and patience, including tweaking the e-portfolio capstone, class hour requirements and research presentations.

“It’s just a learning curve that any organization would go through,” said program director Michael Topp, Ph.D.

Ultimately LAHP is honing its capacity to broaden the student experience, either in direct, tangible ways through students’ final projects, or in more abstract ways such as travel and interaction with great thinkers and doers so students gain knowledge about the world around them and cultivate maturity, confidence and real-world skills that can take them far academically and professionally.

Jecoa Ross, who graduates this Saturday, was pleased his education expanded beyond the parameters normally required by the University. He pursued LAHP membership because, Ross said, “I wanted to be challenged and recognized for my capacity for learning.”

Provost Junius J. Gonzales looks forward to the program’s continued growth.

“The Liberal Arts Honors Program models access and excellence by championing high impact pedagogical practices like small classes, internships and study abroad for liberal arts majors,” he said. “Meetings with speakers like Philip Levine, 18th Poet Laureate of the United States, encourage very talented LAHP students to dream and to achieve.”

Back in March, an official induction ceremony at the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts welcomed students to the program. Topp said it will become an annual event, bringing new members into the fold while providing encouragement to those students who have been working hard on the program requirements throughout their membership.

Since LAHP's 2012 launch, the program has grown from 29 to 44 members. Topp is working hard to meet a goal of 50 LAHP members before the end of 2013. Two recent open houses held in the Liberal Arts Building offered curious students the chance to talk one-on-one with Topp and current participants about the program’s requirements and resources.

“Increased presence and visibility on campus has been a big focus for LAHP this term, so we’ve been present throughout orientations and campuswide activities. We’re also trying to spread the word that there are funding opportunities through the program for students to take advantage of,” Topp said.

For the first time, LAHP was able to provide funding for four of its students to travel to a variety of academic conferences this fall semester. Philosophy major Benjamin Williams, who applied to become part of the first cohort of honors students last fall, had his trip to the Jewish American and Holocaust Literature Symposium underwritten by LAHP, and was offered a scholarship to travel to New York City over the summer.

Other perks of LAHP membership range from access to a members-only lounge in Prospect Hall to a personalized stole to wear during Commencement exercises.

Graduating senior and multimedia journalism major Oscar Garza applied to be part of LAHP as soon as it was announced. He was motivated by the chance to interact with students putting forth insightful and articulate opinions.

“Plus, the fact that our classes were taught by professors who are such distinguished personalities was not only a thrill, at least for me, but also gave me something meaningful that I could use in the future, whether to pass on or simply to use for greater good,” Garza said.

Committing to the Liberal Arts Honors Program is a major investment of time, energy and ambition. While the recommended 3.5 GPA is flexible for admission consideration, the checklist for graduating with the LAHP includes 18 credit hours of honors-designated courses, completing and presenting an honors thesis or project during the final semester, and an e-portfolio approved by the LAHP Review Committee. Additionally, students must have one of the following: an overall 3.5 GPA, a 4.0 GPA in the LAHP minor, or a 3.75 GPA in their final 30 hours of coursework at UTEP.

While the graduation guidelines are strict, the College of Liberal Arts’ inherent breadth and structure offer the kind of flexibility for such an honors program to exist.

“We had those sorts of built-in advantages in curricular terms that made it really viable to put together something that would be challenging, which was one of the main goals of putting together an honors program – to push students and give them opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

One of those opportunities is for its students to intimately connect with the special guests it brings to campus. Members have been invited to private sit-downs with poet laureate Philip Levine, author and filmmaker Ricardo Ainslie, and political organizer Mark Rudd when the three visited campus to give Centennial Lectures. Topp said the program is continuing to aim high in terms of bringing in big-name speakers, reaching out to influencers in law, academia and the Latino community.

“When we bring in speakers from outside, it’s not just a question of being able to sit down with somebody cool who’s written a book and getting to talk to them about it,” Topp explained. “What we’re trying to do for students is demystify success for them.” Through bringing in a wide variety of individuals who have been successful in very unique situations, the students also can believe they can attain success in their own fields.

Thanks to the opportunities they’ve been given through LAHP, Garza, Ross and Williams feel prepared to move forward after Saturday’s Commencement.

 “LAHP has prepared me for postgraduate plans by promoting academic knowledge first and foremost, but also by giving me a sense of community and belief in what I’ve accomplished,” Garza said. “It’s all about learning and using that knowledge for something meaningful and significant.”