Western Oregon University’s Honors Program is a subcommunity of the university’s academic populace. The required curriculum is developed by and for the students engaging in it, as the Honors Committee is comprised of both instructors and honors students.
Leading the program is Gavin Keulks, who has been WOU’s Honors Director for 10 years. For his bachelor’s degree, Keulks attended the University of Wisconsin, a large university that was easy to get lost in. As an honors student, he felt he gained a meaningful perspective on life, and he was encouraged to be curious about the world and how he could advance his place in it. The honors community he experienced cultivated self-discovery, and Keulks graduated from his undergraduate program with an inquisitive mind. Following that positive experience, Keulks was driven to support a similar community here at WOU, where students could engage in “constant questioning and self-discovery,” just as he had. Although our Honors Program has more than doubled in size during Keulks’ time as director and advisor, each honors course is still based in community and collaborative learning. Classes have grown and the curriculum has gained many more subject sections, including an increasingly large variety of classes, departments, and curriculum types.
The honors curriculum is comprised of small-class courses with a focus in personalized learning. The Honors Committee continuously works to craft the most optimal experience for their students, with the specific goal of promoting community service, global citizenry, and critical inquiry. Keulks believes that honors courses are beneficial because students are surrounded by high-achieving and well-prepped peers, the classwork requires greater involvement, productive discussions are promoted and encouraged, and instructors foster a passion for new and thought-provoking ideas.
These values are promoted especially in the Honors Colloquia, which are specialized courses that students can enroll in without prerequisites. Honors students must complete three colloquia before graduation. These courses emerge from proposals by instructors, and the proposals chosen are voted on by the Honors Committee, in which student members hold equal weight in the process as university faculty members. Colloquia are designed to encourage engagement and learning between instructors and students, and they cover a range of subjects and departments, aimed toward students who may have interests in these topics rather than having majors or minors in them. As Keulks stated, within an honors setting, “There’s just a love for discussing an idea.”
The honors community is comprised of more than the courses; there are also many annual special events. To supplement the freshman theater class, first-year students are taken on a mandatory Oregon Shakespeare Festival trip, in which the housing and transportation are paid for by the school. Additionally, the Honors Program hosts multiple community service days that promote responsible citizenry and teamwork. Finally, there are once-a-term honors gatherings and group advising sessions, in which food is typically provided.
Every honors student must create and complete a thesis by graduation. The mandatory thesis is structured around each student’s area of study, and they all engage in three developmental thesis courses to help them create and develop their project alongside instructors. Keulks stated that over the years, the types of accepted theses have broadened. The styles of theses that have been accepted and conducted in the past span action research, experiential learning, and volunteer and civic engagement; there will also possibly be a student leadership option in the coming years. Although the requirements for theses have expanded and tend to be flexible, there is still a focus on engagement with campus. Overall, honors theses tend to be hybrids of scientific research and art-based genres of study.
The skills that Honors students gain and develop throughout their time in the program will benefit their academic journey and their life outside the university. Honors alumni are likely to experience a multiplicity of careers, therefore they require the ability to pivot and adapt in their skill-sets. The Honors curriculum is beneficial in that regard because students are taught how to effectively communicate, maintain confidence in their work, and critically solve problems. As Keulks stated, group work is essential, and that is one of the most important skills that Honors students are imbued with.