Getting honest about graduating with honors

Illustration by Tonesha Yazzie

With commencement just around the corner, students are reminded of how competitive professional and academic endeavors can be. Many students believe graduating from NAU’s Honors College is a great way to distinguish themselves from other candidates in their postgraduate aspirations. Meanwhile, other students don’t think the trouble of studying in the Honors College is worth the esteem.

Honors College adviser Christina Hornett reported that 125 honors students will be graduating at the close of this spring semester. She said the Honors College is designed to provide opportunities and resources to talented students who are committed to their education. The major distinctions between the honors and standard curricula are the smaller, seminar-style classes and the added course requirements.

Rebecca Sandoval, Honors College senior film major, said the education she received in honors, with its added rigor, made her experience at NAU more satisfying. She said that honors students must attend five honors explorations before they graduate. Sandoval said that honors explorations are academic and cultural events that honors students are required to attend for credit.

“I think that it did add to my experience and I have to appreciate it in that sense,” Sandoval said. “It forced me to take a second language, and for film, you’re not required to take a second language, so that was really cool. You have to do all of these explorations, and I honestly would not have gone to any of these school events otherwise, which I appreciated as well.”

Sandoval said she especially valued the atmosphere of classes offered through the Honors College in comparison to regular NAU courses.

“What makes [classes] different from what normal students take is the fact that it’s 20 people in a room all facing each other and we’re just talking,” Sandoval said. “I think that’s the most relaxing and effective way to learn. It felt like a really laid-back community, which was better than just being lectured with a PowerPoint, and I appreciate that.”

However, Sandoval said she didn’t think the networking and undergraduate opportunities available through the Honors College helped her much as a film major. She said she thought the Honors College especially catered to STEM majors in terms of additional networking opportunities and events offered to students. Sandoval said being in the Honors College allowed her to enroll for classes earlier than most other students, and that’s what was most important to her.

Hornett said that although some of these things are gained through experiences honors students have outside of class, much of how the Honors College shapes students for success occurs inside its classes.

“Honors is not something extra that students have to do,” Hornett said. “It’s about creating an experience that sets students apart in terms of the classes they can take and how those classes help develop critical thinking, communication and innovative ideas moving forward.”

Hornett also said that establishing relationships is a big part of what makes the Honors College unique and that the student-faculty relationships formed in honors are truly special.

“Upper division students have been able to develop relationships with our staff from the beginning,” Hornett said. “Through these relationships, they’re introduced to really amazing internships and undergraduate research opportunities.”

Hornett said there are more positive aspects to being a part of the Honors College than students might realize, and that there is likely something that would appeal to anybody interested in honors.

“Our new building has created such a wonderful community for the incoming freshmen,” Hornett said. “They have the advantage of living where they take their classes. [This] allows students to have more interactions with faculty, administration and staff. NAU allows for great student connections across campus, but honors has that additional perk of being a community within a community.”

Honors College Dean Kevin Gustafson said that honors is unique in more ways than just smaller classes and opportunities for exploration. He said it is the individualized educational experience, community building and focus on preparation for success after university that really encapsulates the Honors College.

Gustafson said students should join the Honors College to focus on building writing, presentation and networking skills rather than for tangible benefits, such as getting to put honors on their resumés.

“We are the sum of our actions, and the actions of being an honors student will transform you,” Gustafson said.

Gustafson said the Honors College is like a melting pot of students coming from various backgrounds, different majors and with unique experiences and perspectives. He said students are able to form connections with people who are vastly different from them. Gustafson said the varied abilities brought to the table by honors students encourage them to engage with their peers in unique ways.

Senior Ray Hoffman decided not to be in the Honors College because he said he did not want to complete the additional work required. He agreed with Gustafson that looking good on paper should not be one’s motivation for being in the Honors College.

“Getting to put it on your resumé is a good thing about it, but that shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all decision to do something,” Hoffman said. “I don’t think that’s something you should look at for any kind of program in college. You should do things because you want to learn and seek out the knowledge that interests you, not just something that’ll get you a job or look good on a resumé.” Hoffman said he didn’t think being a part of the Honors College was worth it because the experience does not outweigh the extra work.

“From what I’ve heard from other students who were in the honors program, it seemed like it was more work for not that much of a payoff,” Hoffman said.

Honors College senior Alyzabeth Allen said the thing she appreciated most about being in honors were the opportunities she had to meet people she wouldn’t have met otherwise. Allen said that unlike other learning communities around NAU, the Honors College is not specific to a narrow academic group of students with similar interests. Honors students are brought together by their shared dedication to learning.

With additional emphasis on writing and reading courses, Allen said the Honors College can offer more challenges for people with different skills.

“It’s so writing based and if that’s not your strong suit, it’s really hard to succeed in classes,” Allen said. “But they’re meant to help teach you to be better at writing and effectively translating your thoughts from your brain onto a piece of paper in a cohesive manner, but that’s really difficult for some people.”

Allen said for her, being part of the Honors College was worth it because she is an English major, and the added writing courses worked well with her schedule. However, she said that honors is not for everyone and the Honors College is not as adaptable to other majors as she would like.

Gustafson said a future goal for the Honors College is for its curriculum to work well with other majors. That way, students don’t feel like it’s a hassle to be part of something they should feel included in. He said the Honors College’s aim is to create a college where all students feel welcome and feel as though the college is worth its students’ time and effort.