I’ll be the adviser in Richard Bland College’s pilot honors program in the fall, and there’s been some discussion among friends and colleagues about what an honors program should be. Richard Bland is affiliated with the College of William & Mary, and we’ve been around for 50 years, but we’re not very well known. I live in Mechanicsville, Va., about 40 minutes away from the campus. When I tell people I work at Richard Bland College, they typically look confused or they politely nod. I then take it upon myself to tell them it’s a two-year college in Petersburg that’s affiliated with William & Mary, and so on.
This is a good and a bad position to be in. On the one hand, prospective students and their families don’t seek us out, which is not at all good for enrollment. On the other hand, we have the opportunity to build our brand almost from scratch (something Richard Bland’s been working on since a new president took charge, last summer).
As for the honors program, everyone agrees that we want terrific students to have an unforgettable experience that is challenging and rewarding. We want students to have experiences that are valuable for the memories they create and for the knowledge they provide. Of course, we want those things for all of our students, but we’re hoping to build a sense of community and belonging among the honors cohort, and they will probably get special opportunities for trips and other experiences.
There’s been some disagreement when it comes to the “academic” side of the honors program. Do we have more-challenging classes just for its students? Do we offer the same classes as for nonhonors students but require more work for “honors credit”? Do the classes stay the same, while honors students get their own seminars, lectures, and field trips? This pilot year will happen without the “academic” component, whatever that may end up including. That is, we’re not having special classes or instruction for honors students; it’s more about cultural experiences and making personal connections.
One might think we should require more academic work out of honors students. But Richard Bland College doesn’t really have a reputation (neither a good one to uphold or a bad one to repair), and “more” is a relative term. If we do decide to create an academic component with separate classes for honors students, then why don’t we make all classes just as challenging? Would that devalue nonhonors study? In this case, the honors program almost has to be only field trips, corporate connections, and cultural experiences. But is that really enough to call it an honors program?
When you hear “honors program,” what comes to mind?