The Honors Program is growing, and twice as many people want in.
The number of students applying to JMU's Honors Program has doubled within the past two years, from 900 in 2008 to 1,800 applicants in 2010.
Changes to the program are being made to enhance the experience of honors students, including a new honors dorm, Shenandoah Hall, which emphasizes a sense of community, according to Barry Falk, director of the Honors Program.
"One of the main benefits of an honors community is that it allows highly motivated students to interact with other students who share the same interests and goals," Falk said.
Last year, the Honors Study Abroad Program, limited to only first and second year students, took a trip to London. Because of the increase in student interest, the program added Florence and next year the list will expand to Barcelona.
"We like to give our honors students more experiential opportunities and these trips fulfill that," Falk said.
Last summer, junior chemistry major Alexa DeLuca went to London with the Honors Program and said it was different than any class that could ever be taken at JMU.
"I learned a lot because it wasn't just a professor lecturing," DeLuca said. "Getting to know other people in the program on a different level was a great bonding experience."
On the Honors abroad trip, classes were discussion-based and led by students followed by fieldtrips around the city where they could reinforce what was being taught.
DeLuca explained that because of the increasing size of the Honors Program it can be difficult to get to know other honors students outside of those in her classes.
"I don't think that I would feel as much a part of the Honors Program if I hadn't gone on this trip," she said. "My experience as an honors student was definitely heightened."
This year's total number of honors students rose to 850. This is an increase from the program's size of 500 to 600 from about six years ago.
However, certain course requirements, such as the senior honors thesis and upholding specific GPA requirements, sometimes forces students to withdraw and deters others from finishing.
The current retention rate of the entering class sits at about 50 percent, which "is very much in line with other universities' honors programs," Falk said. Some students run into scheduling problems needing to take at least one honors class per semester and "prefer not to deal."
Falk said dropouts from the Honors Program can also be attributed to students not wanting to exude three semesters worth of work to complete the senior project.
However, strategic course planning and selection can help in making the transition into the honors program, Falk said.
The selling point of the JMU Honors Program is a "small college-feel within the larger university setting," Falk said in regards to recent high school applicants' responses.
The Honors Program attributes its increased number of applicants to an amplified interest in JMU but especially the enhanced reputation of the program.
"The Honors Program here fits in really well with the JMU culture ... there is a buzz about the program as well as about JMU," Falk said.
Part of the increased chatter about the Honors Program can be credited to the culmination of work in the senior honors thesis project, what Falk described as a "wonderful and special part of the program."
The senior honors thesis, a three semester-long project, begins in the junior year. During which, students select an adviser who will work alongside them and serve as their mentor.
"All majors are represented in the honors program," Falk said. "With the senior project you find something that you are interested in to fit under that heading."
Being able to work one-on-one with a faculty member in the same discipline that the student is interested in further fosters preparedness for the occupational setting.
"The skills that the students develop and the experience with the honors program will provide big benefits in the business world," Falk said. "The faculty members will serve as connections that they will value for a lifetime."
Maureen Shanahan, associate director of the Honors Program, describes the honors students as "having a vision about their futures making it easy to advance their goals."
Shanahan sees being part of the Honors Program "as one of the best opportunities" for students.
Falk added that "at other places students struggle to get their voices out there but JMU's attitude is ‘how can I help
Falk and his associates are in the midst of making changes to the program to entice even more students to apply.
"There are some really exciting things we are working on that could set us as a national model for honors curriculum," Falk said.
The program is working on expanding the Maymester Honors Seminar to provide for flexibility in highly structured majors, as well as offering unique scholarship opportunities.
Falk and his colleagues are also working on ways to further the "JMU faculty interaction with honors students and increase the network of alumni creating additional mentoring and internship opportunities" he said.
Dan Richardson, a junior political science major, has been a member of the Honors Program since his freshman year.
"The Honors Program has been the single biggest thing for me and most of my current resume revolves around it," said Richardson, who is the Honors Student Council chair. "It offers more than just courses and Dr. Falk has played an instrumental part in all of that."
According to Richardson, when deciding between other rigorous Virginia universities, he believes that high school applicants are drawn to the atmosphere of JMU's Honors Program.
"They are looking for seminar classes versus lecture and the Honors Program exists to fill that void," Richardson said. "JMU is known for the teacher-friendly environment and the Honors Program supplements and adds to that."
Contact Natalie Dohner at firstname.lastname@example.org.