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

Florham honors

Florham honors students on a cultural trip to Lincoln Center in New York City, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Marilyn Rye)

By Kenna Caprio

Becoming an honors student at Fairleigh Dickinson University is about more than making a serious commitment to undergraduate studies. These scholars find success inside and out of the classroom through experiential learning, social connections and the thesis process.

“All honors classes are meant to challenge the students — not to give them more work — but rather, to stress critical thinking and writing,” says Marilyn Rye, associate professor of English and director of the University Honors Program at the Florham Campus. “University Honors is a four-year program. Students do some honors work each semester, culminating in a thesis.”

Academically, the University Honors Program “offers honors classes, a junior research thesis and a discipline-based senior thesis,” says Rye. Honors classes are available in a variety of subjects — including honors sections of freshman seminar and writing, math, drama and psychology courses, plus more. Socially and culturally, the program sponsors trips to New York City and surrounding areas to visit museums and gardens or see a ballet, opera, musical or play. “We also get tickets to see the theater productions in Dreyfuss, hear featured speakers on campus and go to poetry readings,” Rye adds. This fall, honors students attended the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, N.J.

The academic, social and cultural program priorities enhance the undergraduate educational experience as students learn, study, research and write theses. With 160 students currently in the program, they’re studying creative writing, history, finance and much more — while their theses tackle complex topics: personal and narrative nonfiction, ancient and modern warfare, and financial reform and monitoring.

Creative writing major and senior Frankie Lopes wrote a 300-page memoir for his senior thesis, under the tutelage of David Grand, assistant professor of creative writing.

“I picked up new techniques and was exposed to new writers. Writing nonfiction, you have to own up to experiences and take responsibility. I’m genuinely satisfied with the end product,” says Lopes. “Writing the thesis taught me about working under a larger frame or structure and how to react and meet deadlines.”

At the annual University Honors Research Day, the culmination of a yearlong research and writing process, honors students from every discipline present their theses simultaneously, in 30-minute blocks. Lopes read 15 pages from his memoir when he presented, while Alex Korda, BA’14, spoke on the Punic Wars, highlighting the border struggles between ancient Rome and Carthage.

Pinpointing a very specific event within the series of Punic Wars, the idea an outgrowth of a course he took with Peter Burkholder, refined the scope of Korda’s senior thesis. “Once he did that, his thesis is clearly his best work that he’s done for me,” says Burkholder, associate professor of history, and honors mentor.

“My experience with my junior and senior theses is helping me on my final project for the QUEST program,” says Korda, originally of Bridport, Vt. With his theses behind him, Korda — now pursuing his MAT at FDU — knows how to find and navigate scholarly articles and prepare for each step of the project, a case study of educational inequality in New Jersey and how federal and state funding influence levels of disparity. He knows these skills will benefit him in his future history classroom, too. “These techniques correspond directly into my ability to hunt down primary and secondary sources for my students. Awareness and critical thinking give me the ability to scale the classroom experience for students,” Korda says.

Working in tandem with admissions, Rye recruits high-achieving students admitted to FDU. “After they’ve been accepted, we send letters. We recruit every semester,” she says. Honors students sometimes speak at Admitted Students Day, alongside the college deans.

Students must apply with a high school grade point average of 3.2 or better, a minimum Critical Reading SAT of 600 and a minimum combined SAT score of 1150 (on the 1600 scale) to be considered for the University Honors Program.

“We’re giving our honors students the opportunity to hone their skills and be competitive in graduate school and at work,” says Rye. Recent honors graduates are applying for Fulbright Scholarships, attending medical and dental school, studying at the University of Pennsylvania, starting small businesses, working at Goldman Sachs, Marriott, Ernst and Young and on Wall Street.

“Since I was able to leverage my junior thesis to get a really great internship (at Goldman Sachs), I’ve definitely seen the value in taking the time to become a subject matter expert,” says Elona Bilovol, a senior finance major originally of Cherry Hill, N.J. She wrote her junior thesis on the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, passed by Congress in 2010, in response to the recent financial crisis. “It’s very important to the industry, it has changed and continues to change so much. I put that experience onto my resume and it became a talking point in internship interviews. I landed an internship with Goldman Sachs last summer, doing regulatory work.”

Though she’s still narrowing in on a specific topic, Bilovol has decided to write her senior thesis on trends in company evaluations. “Partnering with a mentor, someone with more experience, guides you in a different way,” she says of working with Kenneth Betz, senior lecturer of economics. “He has an interesting and developed perspective on the things that are going on in terms of the markets and financial world. He’s been really great with the process, making sure to push me to get ahead on my research, and pointing me to any resources that I may not be aware of.”

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. By 1986, the campus directors had designed and established a four-year, tri-campus University Honors Program.

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.

“Sitting just grading blue book exams is not very edifying work. But working with students who are very motivated, like the honors students — it’s not really even work — it’s so satisfying,” says Burkholder, who has mentored three students on their theses. “Aspiring for students to achieve a high level — it’s something you enjoy doing.”