Each year, the prestige of Temple's Honors Program grows.
Story by Hillel J. Hoffmann
It is late Tuesday morning in 204 Tuttleman Learning Center, and every seat is taken: the sofas, the rocking chair, the table, the computer workstations, the armchairs and the bench. Two students read newspapers. Four read books. Two play chess and another watches. While one student applies for an internship online, another picks up a recommendation for a fellowship at a nonprofit in Philadelphia. There is one conversation about Darwin, another about the room’s student-curated photography exhibit and a third about a Temple chemist who is synthesizing molecular building blocks. The fourth conversation is the most spirited: a debate about where to find Philadelphia’s best ice cream.
Welcome to the Honors Program lounge, the eye of the university’s intellectual hurricane. If there were a way to measure the amount of freeflowing discourse—scholarly and otherwise—then this space might be the most supercharged 1,000 square feet at Temple.
With an all-time-high enrollment of more than 1,600 students, Temple Honors—a program that offers small classes, unique courses and one-on-one advising to a tightly knit community of academically talented students— is on a roll.
Last fall’s class of 458 Honors freshmen was the largest in Temple’s history, a stunning trend given that standards for entry into the program have never been higher. Its students have assumed leadership positions throughout the university: Current Temple Student Government President Kylie Patterson, a senior Truman scholarship winner who is double-majoring in political science and African American studies, is a product of the Honors Program, and so were her two predecessors.
As the program grows, so does the number of scholars it produces. Honors students are attending the nation’s top graduate schools and are being recognized with prestigious scholarships, including Fulbrights (seven in the past two years) and Udalls. Since 2004, Honors students also have earned three Marshalls and two Trumans, competitive scholarships that only a few Owls had won in prior decades.
In recent years, Honors has expanded its course offerings, established a peer mentoring program for recruits, added small-group research opportunities, launched a new cultural and service immersion program that has sent students to Appalachia, New Orleans and more.
“Honors is hot,” says Honors Program Director Ruth Ost between greeting students who poke their heads into her office every few minutes. “The last two freshman classes have been huge. Four years ago, the average Honors SAT score was about 1300. This year, it’s more than 1330. Now, people call us all the time and say, ‘I’d like to be in the Honors Program.’”
But for Honors students, the Temple experience was not always this structured: In the past, most students had been nurtured by individual faculty mentors rather than studying within a small community of like-minded students. There were brief experiments with similar programs in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, but most of these efforts were limited to individual schools and colleges until Temple launched what would eventually become today’s universitywide Honors Program during the 1987–1988 academic year. When Ost joined Temple Professor of Physics Dieter Forster to revitalize the program in the mid-1990s, it was tucked away in Ritter Hall Annex, a building located on Cecil B. Moore Avenue between 13th and Broad streets. Ost recalls that the program served about 180 freshmen per class from an approximate freshman population of 2,400.
Left to right: Freshmen Laura Speers, a communications major; Toni White, a psychology major; and Alexander Wright, a film and media arts major, gather in the Honors Lounge, a vibrant hub for the high-achieving students enrolled in Temple's Honors Program.
Zachary Grof, a junior who is studying political science, takes time out to share another of his talents with peers in the program.
Change came swiftly. To build a sense of community and encourage what Ost calls the “cross-pollenization of majors,” Honors floors were created in a residence hall. The Department of Undergraduate Admissions began to work with Honors staff members to create special events for prospective students. Ost pushed faculty members to create unique Honors courses — not just advanced versions of existing courses, but “sparkling, interesting, unusual courses that students can’t resist,” she says. One such class was Associate Professor of History Ralph Young’s popular and groundbreaking Dissent in America.
In 1999, the program moved into the new Tuttleman Learning Center. More space and a central location on 13th Street between Paley Library and the Student Center gave students a place to mingle and bond (or even to sleep when studying for Graduate Record Examinations). But most of all, the move to the heart of Main Campus was a statement to the university and to visitors that Honors was not an afterthought: The program had arrived.
“The development of Honors came at a perfect time for Temple,” says Peter Jones, senior vice provost for undergraduate studies. “The university has been attracting an increasing number of outstanding students. Honors, fueled by the boundless energy of Ruth and her staff, has been a huge factor in retaining these top-level students. They come here to be challenged.”
Challenging people, students say, is what Ost does best. She pushes. She prods. She cheerleads. She gently scolds. And then, whether her students like it or not, she will push some more.
“When you walk into Ruth’s office, she’ll have applications for four scholarships lined up on her desk,” says Avi Fox, a senior environmental studies major who won a 2009 Udall Scholarship in recognition of a community group she organized in Narberth, Pa., her hometown. “She’ll also follow you around to make sure you understand what you need to do. She’ll meet with you for 45 minutes and tear your writing apart and make you start over. She’s relentless, and sometimes I hated it. But I learned how to write from Ruth. She prepared me for my toughest professors. She prepared me for life.”
The motivation and determination that are nurtured within the Honors Program extend far beyond what is learned in the Honors lounge, in class and on campus. For example, in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, Alex Epstein, an Honors freshman studying sociology, and Amanda Neuber, Honors associate director, spent the 2009 winter break leading Temple students on an Honors Immersion Program service trip to one of the nation’s most underserved urban neighborhoods.
“Every student should go on immersion trips like this, because not only do you help people, you also learn more about society than you can in any class,” says Epstein, who returned to the city with a group of North Philadelphia high school students in the spring.
In Bogotá, Colombia, Honors alumnus Jeff Althouse, CLA ’09, one of four Honors students to win a Fulbright in 2009–2010—a record-breaking annual total at Temple—is teaching English at Universidad Nacional de Colombia and is working with underprivileged youth. His experience also was prompted by a nudge from the Honors staff.
While others students choose to have an impact on other countries, Laura Lamon, a senior in adult and organizational development in the College of Education, will make her mark on Philadelphia after graduation. She wants to apply for a fellowship with Philly Fellows, a one-year program that offers outstanding college graduates opportunities to work with cultural, social and educational organizations in the city.
Both the Honors Program and the university’s urban environment influenced Lamon’s decision to attend Temple. “I remember talking to Ruth,” she says. “I remember sitting on Liacouras Walk and thinking that I wanted to be in the city. When I came back after orientation, I wanted to live here. I didn’t want to go home and say, ‘That’s four years of my life and it’s over.’”
When it comes to Temple Honors students, such dedication is not surprising. “These students are so gifted and hungry and smart and committed,” Ost says. “Inside each of them is an almost unlimited potential to mark the world in creative and inspiring ways.”
Hillel J. Hoffmann is the assistant director of news communications at Temple.
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