College of Liberal Arts Offers Honors Program

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

What do students majoring in psychology, political science, creative writing, criminal justice, philosophy, media advertising, and art history have in common? Before the school year began, they might not have had much in common at all. But now they are all part of the brand new College of Liberal Arts Honors Program – UTEP’s first college-based honors program.

The program offers rigorous and innovative courses taught by professors who are eager to work with ambitious students. Bios on all the students – who are majoring and minoring in a wide range of subjects – can be found on the program’s website. This kind of personalized attention is just one of the perks of being selected for the program.The College of Liberal Arts now offers UTEP's first college-based honors program. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceThe College of Liberal Arts now offers UTEP's first college-based honors program. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

“We’re trying to make the best possible resources available to the best students in liberal arts,” said Michael Topp, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Twenty-nine students are participating in the honors program; they range in age and collegiate experience.

“We very much reflect the demographics of UTEP,” Topp said. Admission to the program is on a rolling basis through the end of the term. After that, two application deadlines will be scheduled in the spring and fall in order to bring in new groups just prior to registration for the following term.

Made up of “some of the best courses you’ll take in college,” according to the program’s Web page, the curriculum aims to help students get ready for their next steps, while the application process ensures that students who truly want to be part of the honors program are the ones who make it in. One example is David Jacobson, a history major who is using the program to further his goals toward a Ph.D.

“The Liberal Arts Honors Program gives me recognition and distinction for the hard work and dedication I have poured into my classes,” he said. “I applied to the program in order to challenge myself, and to take advantage of the myriad benefits that come with being associated with the Liberal Arts Honors Program. I hope to receive not only a more in-depth education, but a way to distinguish myself for future studies at the graduate and Ph.D. levels as well.”

Faculty liaisons from all the participating departments and programs worked together as a committee to devise the honors program curriculum. Its main feature is a co-taught theory or methodology course that students begin once they’re admitted to the program. This unique course focuses on the theoretical foundations or methodological strategies that various disciplines use across liberal arts.

“Because we’re all over the place in liberal arts in disciplinary terms, we want these particular courses co-taught because we want at least two theories or methodologies existing in creative tension with each other, just to complicate students’ awareness of how knowledge is produced across the college,” Topp explained.

Honors credits can be accrued through special projects and theses worked out through the students’ home departments and mentors who guide these independent studies. An inventory of study abroad and internship opportunities will be developed for students to earn additional honors credit. Other credits are accrued through honors-designated courses that take advantage of the quality teaching and educational experiences that are already available in the college.

In the years before he established the program, Topp perused a variety of honors set-ups at schools around the country in order to determine the best way for a liberal arts honors program to come about at UTEP. One of the decisions he made was to do away with the independent study plan that many of those other programs have had in place, demanding an enormous amount of time and effort on the part of faculty and students that isn’t always the most efficient or effective.

“It’s outside of the norm in really good ways,” Topp said. “We’ve avoided what is widely recognized as one of the major pitfalls of honors programs.”

The recommended G.P.A. for students in the program is 3.5, but students with lower G.P.A.s will be considered, Topp said.

“One of the things that makes UTEP so special is the fact that students can succeed in all sorts of different ways and using all sorts of different trajectories,” Topp said. “That’s one of the reasons why the G.P.A. is recommended rather than strict. In order to complete the honors program, you have to have a 3.5. So you need to be on an upward trajectory, but we look at students more completely than just the numbers on a page.”

Faculty from all departments in the College of Liberal Arts had the opportunity to pitch their classes to be included as part of the list of more than 80 courses available for honors credit. Topp hopes that more professors will join in as the program evolves.

Future plans for the program include an open house and establishment of a networking space where honors students can convene, which is especially important since students in the program might not take courses together during their time at UTEP. In the meantime, honors program liaisons have been tasked with identifying students who may be ideal for the program. Scholarship and travel opportunities will be harvested and featured on the honors program website for students who want to take advantage of them, whether or not they’re part of the program.

Other perks for Honors program students include stipends, graduate borrowing privileges at the University Library, and the chance to be involved in an official student organization (officers have just been elected) to represent all liberal arts honors students among the student body and build more community among the program participants. As part of the program’s goal of furthering intellectual development both inside and outside of the classroom, a lecture series will expose honors students not only to inspirational leaders in their fields, but also to those individuals who have emerged out of liberal arts programs and gone on to succeed in order to prove the professional advantages of a liberal arts degree. The hope is that students who are in the program now end up being the ones who come back years from now and lead these lectures when they are successful professionals, no matter what career they choose.

Ledy Snyder, a senior majoring in criminal justice, is one of the first 29 students enrolled in the new honors program.

“The LAHP program is a great opportunity for students to be recognized for their academic excellence,” Snyder said. “The program also gives students amazing perks like a personal meeting with Sichan Siv during his visit to the university. This program truly offers the opportunities of a lifetime.”

Siv, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, took time during his visit to UTEP to sit down intimately with the liberal arts honors students before his lecture to a larger audience. Topp aims to continue this kind of access between students and leaders from a variety of sectors.

“This is a way for us to present our best selves in a number of different ways: by focusing on quality faculty, by focusing on quality educational opportunities both inside and outside the classroom, and by presenting these opportunities to the best students we have here. And hopefully offering the honors program as a template for other colleges that want to explore other honors possibilities,” he said.

“The Liberal Arts Honors program is a challenging yet enhancing opportunity for me to grow academically,” said Itzel Rivera, a junior majoring in criminal justice. “I applied to the Liberal Arts Honors Program because it is the first step toward meeting my academic goals with great success.”

Students may apply to the Liberal Arts honors program when they have completed a minimum of 45 credit hours with at least 12 of those hours at UTEP.  Other criteria for admission to the program can be found on its website.