The North may have its Harvard, Yale and Princeton, but here in the heart of the South, nestled among 100-plus-year-old, moss-covered oaks, is the prestigious institution called South Carolina Honors College. For a number of reasons, the Honors College is ranked number one among the 50 other public honors colleges throughout the United States.
Christopher Waller is in his third year at the Honors College and currently studying international business in France through a study abroad opportunity. “There was pressure while in high school to find a school of high caliber that would help me grow intellectually as much as possible while I’m an undergraduate,” he says. Christopher found just what he was looking for without going very far since he is a native of South Carolina. He says he is not only in an environment where he is learning at his full potential, but he also has both the benefits of a smaller college, with smaller class sizes and a variety of unique courses in a large, public university with a great diversity of cultures, sports and activities.
The Honors College first began as a program in the 1960s. According to Steven Lynn, the college’s dean, a small group of visionary faculty and administrators wanted to offer something that would keep South Carolina’s best students in the state. Ironically, the Honors College currently attracts slightly more students out of state than it does in state. In 1978, it became not just a program but a college. And, since then, with the robust support of USC’s leadership, it has attracted what Dean Lynn calls “a richly diverse group of students from all over the country.”
Currently, there are 1,574 students enrolled in the Honors College; that is less than seven percent of the University of South Carolina’s undergraduates. Students are encouraged to pursue distinct areas of study and often combine majors and/or minors. In fact, Dean Lynn says that it is not uncommon for an Honors College student to create interesting combinations — physics and religious studies, exercise science and philosophy, creative writing and math.
For students interested in going beyond USC’s traditional majors and minors, there is the BARSC (Baccalaureus Artium et Scientiae) opportunity. Dean Lynn explains that it allows students to craft their own individualized degree programs, guided by a faculty committee. A student, for instance, might be interested in pursuing the intersections of neuroscience, music, linguistics, psychology and anthropology. A BARSC degree allows a student to do just that.
Just to get into the Honors College is no easy feat. Students in the most recent incoming class had an average weighted core GPA of 4.65, with average SAT scores ranging from 1390 to 1470, and average ACT scores of 31 to 33. Most students apply to the Honors College while in high school and enter their freshman year of college; however, it is possible for students, who aspire to be a part of the Honors College but do not have the scores upon admission, to transfer in later based on their academic performance.
Dean Lynn was a part of the honors program as a student back in 1970 to 1974, before it became a college. At that time, he was a biology pre-med student. However, after dissecting a cat one day and thinking how unpleasant that was, he went into his English class and immediately began daydreaming about becoming an English professor and teaching honors classes. He did exactly that, graduating from the honors program with others who went onto lead high-achieving lives: an admiral, attorneys, architects, doctors, professors and at least one poet. He went to Texas to complete a Ph.D. in English and came back to USC as an assistant professor in 1982. He has chaired the department of English and the department of Religious Studies, and he has served as a senior associate dean of Arts and Sciences. Then in July 2011, his academic/professional life came full circle when he accepted the position of Dean of the Honors College — his alma mater.
“I love teaching, research and administration,” he says. “It’s all very rewarding — problem solving, working with the students.”
Even though the requirements to get into the college have remained rigorous, the one thing that has changed is the number of courses available. When he attended, there were not nearly as many choices. “Our courses, more than 200 each year, range from basic introductions to advanced seminars to unique one-time explorations, from Biology 101 to Medical Ethics to The Zombie Apocalypse.” Students must take at least 45 credit hours of honors courses and must maintain a certain grade point average while in the Honors College.
Elise Porter, a recent graduate of the Honors College, says that the challenge and knowing she would be surrounded by driven, motivated people, is what attracted her. However, she also loved the small, intimate classes and the quirky courses like Food in U.S. Literature. “These challenged me to see the world through different lenses. The Honors College pushes the limits in a good way,” she says.
All University of South Carolina students have access to funding to support research projects, and Honors College students are especially active, investigating everything from how to turn off the growth of cancer cells to what was once written on and then scraped off of a medieval manuscript. In classroom sizes that average 14 to 17, students are encouraged to research topics in-depth and to think outside the box.
They are also motivated to study abroad and participate in internships that cover everything from creative writing to nuclear engineering.
According to Dean Lynn, the Honors College not only benefits the students, but the professors as well. He says any USC professor can propose a class and work up a course description for consideration. USC professors often desire to teach an honors course for a number of reasons — primarily because it is rewarding, but it is also a way for a professor to spotlight his or her discipline in an environment where students are willing and eager to stretch themselves.
“There is so much discussion and energy in these classes,” says Dean Lynn. “Professors love that. The faculty are the reason that the curriculum at the Honors College is unparalleled.”
Kim Simmons, Ph.D., an associate dean, says, “I enjoy teaching honors classes because the students are always prepared, ready to discuss and add enriching, engaging experiences to the classroom. When you assign them something to read, they read … and often they read more because they are interested.”
Senior Associate Dean Ed Munn Sanchez, Ph.D., tells of a time when he had a meeting conflict with an honors class that he could not change. He told the students to have class without him. He said he knew they could because of the detailed discussions they had in the past. “I recorded it,” he says. “It was one of the best classes ever. I know that I had prepared them by teaching them before that, but,” he quips, “I felt utterly useless. At the same time I realized how excited, talented and amazing these students are.”
“We’re not just teaching them,” says Pearl Fernandes, Ph.D., associate dean, “but we are also learning from and with them.”
Says Elise, who graduated two years ago from Honors College, “The environment of excellence and the community of scholars and friends was most beneficial. It’s easy to get lazy in college, but the Honors College environment and the caliber of the teachers, classmates and advisers spurred me on to always be on my ‘A’ game.”
Dean Lynn says there is an energy and enthusiasm in honors classes, without the harsh competitiveness that one might experience at some universities. “There is debate and discussion, but it’s handled in a respectful and collaborative way.”
Even though Honors College students are distinct because of their high academic achievements, they are also part of the overall student body at USC. For example, points out Dean Lynn, they might start off in the Honors College dorms, but some end up in Greek housing, or the music dorm, languages dorm, or other areas of the campus. The Honors Residence Hall — which boasts Starbucks coffee — received a perfect score on the recent ranking of public university honors colleges.
Many Honors students seek leadership roles throughout the university; in fact, while the Honors College only makes up less than seven percent of the student body, these students hold about 20 percent of the leadership roles.
Honors College students also branch out into other areas. Most recently, in its Jan. 15 edition, The New York Times’ music critic Steve Smith included a comment about a recording of a concert featuring 14 Honors College students. In his ArtsBeat column, he described the recording as “patient, unpredictable, exceedingly beautiful mingling of simple structures, improvised textures and field recordings.”
The concert was the culmination of the Experimental Music course taught by USC Clinical Assistant Professor of Music Greg Stuart. “This class really challenges our students to think about music and understand contemporary music,” says Ed Munn-Sanchez, South Carolina Honors College senior associate dean. “We have a huge number of musicians in the Honors College, but very few will make careers in it. Greg’s course gave them an opportunity to work as real musicians in a sophisticated way. Experiences like this keep them engaged with music after they enter their professions.”
Greg, a percussionist who teaches music history and experimental music, has taught other honors music classes.
It is because of many accolades that current and former students of the Honors College are motivated to sing its praises. As Elise maintains: “Because of the quality of the program, not because of anything I did, I feel entitled to bragging rights. It’s the top public honors college. What more can I say?”