Academic living and learning: the University Honors Program at the Metropolitan Campus

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These University Honors students from the Metropolitan Campus traveled to Niagara Falls, New York to present their theses at last April's Northeast Regional Honors Council Conference.

By Kenna Caprio

Patricia Warunek can remember nearly every thesis topic for each of her University honors students. Down to some of the most specific and minute details.

As director of the University Honors Program on Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus, it’s an impressive feat, considering Warunek has led the program for 40 years. She eagerly flips through leather-bound theses, excited to share her students’ detailed and thoughtful projects. Some of these students participated in the Northeast Regional Honors Council Conference and all presented their theses at University Honors Research Day.

“The diversity of student work is incredible,” says Warunek, a professor of biological sciences. “I love biology, but this way, you meet students from all over the world with all different majors. I’ve been really fortunate to be running the Honors Program for all of these years.”

More than 200 students, freshmen through seniors, are currently enrolled. With an emphasis on academic rigor — through honors class sections, undergraduate research and thesis and faculty-student collaboration — the University Honors Program prepares high-achieving students for graduate school and the workforce.

“It’s important for undergraduates to think on a deeper, more idea-based level. The honors program really supports that by supporting independent research,” says Judith Kaufman, professor of psychology and director of the Psy.D. and M.A. programs in school psychology, who typically mentors two to three students a year.

During the freshman and sophomore years, students concentrate on taking honors sections of the University Core Curriculum and honor sections available in other disciplines. Junior year, students take an honors seminar and senior year, honors research and thesis.

“I am looking forward to the possibility of coming up with my own experiment and actually doing hands-on research, instead of going to the library and database to pull someone else’s,” says freshman Alyssa Shock, who hasn’t declared her major yet, but is leaning toward psychology. “Maybe I’ll research something that’ll be new and innovative, something that nobody’s ever thought of or expected.”

For electrical engineering majors in the honors program, like senior Gabriel Karlick, their capstone project becomes their honors thesis.

“My capstone project is a microphone preamplifier — something that you would find in every single recording studio — and an essential piece of hardware for recording,” says Karlick. “A microphone produces very low voltage, and that voltage needs to be amplified before it can be recorded.”

Right now, Karlick is designing and building the preamplifier. Next semester, he’ll work on his thesis, based off of his research and design. Guidance from faculty mentor Gloria Reinish, professor of electrical engineering, has contributed to the success of Karlick’s project, which he’s been developing for years. “She’s been helping me refine my ideas,” says Karlick.

The relationship between a faculty mentor and student is “more intimate than just having the student in class. There’s that connection, mutuality of respect and rapport to get the project done,” adds Kaufman.

“Students come in with big or small ideas. Mentors help shape the parameters and either expand or narrow the idea. Once a focus is determined, then we approach creating a strategy and timeline,” says Kaufman. Over the years, she has overseen psychology theses ranging from the application of cognitive development theory to theatergoing to the early and psychosocial development of serial killers. No matter the topic, Kaufman just wants “students to present themselves in the best possible light, pulling themselves together and rising to the occasion” at the annual University Honors ResearchDay.

At these presentations, the culmination of a yearlong research and writing process, honors students from every discipline present their theses simultaneously, in 30-minute blocks.

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Above: Yannick Gibson and Peiran Xu present their theses on "Haute Caribe: An In-Depth Analysis of the Factors that Affect the Trinidadian Fashion Industry" and "The Effects of Facebook Advertising on Sales" at the Northeast Regional Honors Council Conference in 2014. Below: Students had time during the conference to explore Niagara Falls at night. The 2015 conference will be held in Gettysburg, Pa. (Photos courtesy of Rohan Maheshwari)
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“We encourage experiential learning and achieve that in a number of ways. Less formally, we host trips to museums, and more formally, students can attend the Northeast Regional Honors Council Conference,” says Warunek. “Not a lot of undergraduates get to go to a conference.”

Under Warunek’s leadership, the honors program at the Metropolitan Campus has flourished. Last year, 28 seniors participated in the Northeast Regional Honors Council Conference, held in Niagara Falls, New York, presenting theses titled “The Effects of Domestic Violence on Children,” “Challenging the Boundaries of Hospice and Palliative Care,” “Asperger’s Syndrome: Understanding the Unusual,” “No Boundaries: Women, the Glass Ceiling and Gender Discrimination in Business and Politics.”

Honors students interested in attending and presenting must submit a proposal in the form of an abstract. A conference panel then reviews all submissions, which must apply, either directly or indirectly, to the year’s theme. “Typically, every three out of five proposals are accepted,” says Joseph Kiernan, Metropolitan Campus provost and senior vice provost for institutional effectiveness. For the Metropolitan Campus, the acceptance rate is 100%. FDU is “very well-respected in the organization,” adds Warunek.

The conference encourages discovery and bonding time, both academic and social, and built into the schedule in “Places of Text.” Universities in the host city contribute points of interest and excursion suggestions, and attendees must explore and reflect. Last year, Warnuek accompanied some of her students across Rainbow Bridge, which connects Niagara Falls, New York to Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. She’s looking forward to the upcoming April conference, “Battlefields of Change,” in Gettysburg, Pa.

“The Honors Program is a guiding light for your educational well-being,” Karlick says. “It’s also a nice perk to have something that offsets the education in a more social way. You get to hang out with people that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise because they’re not studying your discipline.”

From cultural trips to the honors house, the social side of academia is paramount in the program, too.

Twenty-seven honors students live in the honors house now, a designated living-learning community with 24-hour quiet hours in University Court 6. “The honors house engendered a lot of goodwill and camaraderie on weekends because of a mix of cultures and backgrounds,” says Warunek.

Shock decided to move into University Court 6 to embrace the tight-knit academic community. “I’m meeting intellectual people and having deep conversations about religion and spirituality, language and politics. And in just getting to know people, they respect your world.”

In 1964, keeping with national education trends, FDU introduced its first honors programs at the Rutherford, Metropolitan and Florham campuses. Each operated independently; Rutherford developed their program, to include an honors project in collaboration with a faculty mentor.

Warunek arrived at Rutherford in 1970 as a faculty member in the biology department and soon started mentoring students working on their honors projects. By 1974, she’d been asked to take over as director at Rutherford. Together with the other campus directors, Warunek designed and established a four-year, tri-campus University Honors Program starting in 1986.

“There are just waves of students doing so many exciting things that I had some little part in,” says Warunek.

The new, standardized program featured honors sections of freshman English and Core I, II, III and IV. The undergraduate thesis became a requirement. In the 1989-90 academic year, the first group of University Honors Students representing all three campuses enrolled in senior honors research and thesis classes.

“Think about all the issues and challenges in technology, healthcare, politics, engineering, education and more. My generation is leaving behind big challenges and it will be up to the next generation to meet them,” says Kiernan. “You’re going to find the best of the best in college honors programs. When capability meets motivation, that’s when you get real excellence.”