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Virginia Tech's honors program transforms into Honors College

September 23, 2016

Paul Knox, dean of the Honors College
Paul Knox, dean of the Honors College, meets with students in Hillcrest Hall.

High-achieving individuals always want more — more hands-on experiences, more travel, more exposure to experts and people from diverse backgrounds, more opportunities to make a difference for good.

Virginia Tech is answering that call by elevating its University Honors program to a full-fledged Honors College that will attract students of the highest caliber and provide them more chances to explore their passions and change the world in a meaningful way.

"Our students are up for a challenge," said Honors College Dean Paul Knox, a University Distinguished Professor and Senior Fellow for International Advancement. "We expect more from them, but in return we expect to give them expanded opportunities to pursue their interests as we create the persona for this new college."

The shift from program to college doesn't take talented students from other colleges. The Honors College confers no degrees, only diplomas. It acts as a talent magnet to attract high-achieving students to the seven Virginia Tech colleges offering undergraduate degrees, and then provides support and signature programs that allow those students to thrive.

"You’re here to be thrown on the resources of your own mind, to discover how to reach into yourself so as to be able to reach beyond yourself," Knox told the incoming freshman class at Honors Convocation.

Knox comes to the Honors College with two decades of experience building programs and institutions at Virginia Tech. Holding a bachelor's degree and Ph.D. in geography from the University of Sheffield, England, Knox joined Virginia Tech as a faculty member in urban affairs and planning in 1985.

His career accomplishments include stewardship of the Biocomplexity Institute and the Switzerland-based Steger Center for International Scholarship and leadership of university task forces on real estate, the arts, and foreign language instruction. From 1997-2006, Knox served as dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. He also led the process that resulted in the university's current long-range plan and chaired the committee that recruited Executive Vice President and Provost Thanassis Rikakis to Virginia Tech.

Knox previously taught honors seminars, and along with John Dooley, now CEO of the Virginia Tech Foundation, he co-created the Presidential Global Scholars program. So when President Tim Sands and Rikakis asked him to become the founding dean of the Honors College, Knox said yes. He always says yes; it's one of his secrets to institution building.

"One thing that Tim has always said is, it’s about the talent," Knox said. "Bring the best students, bring the best faculty, and we’ll get there. One of the things that can help do that is a good honors program. We've had a good program, but making it into a college provides further opportunities to build on our strengths."

At the announcement of the Honors College, Sands cited Honors residential communities, the Presidential Global Scholars program, flexible curricula that encourage interdisciplinary and innovative study, and strong faculty commitment as the college's foundation. “Virginia Tech’s University Honors program is well positioned to move into the top echelon of honors colleges within the United States," Sands said.

The differences between the honors program and college are those of scale, purpose, and ambition, Knox said. In its first semester, the transition is still taking place. A curriculum committee has convened. Undergraduate research — especially done collaboratively with graduate students, post-grads, and faculty — will receive more support, including a prep course and an annual research theme.

Students will get more access to visiting speakers, professionals, and alumni. Beginning next year, the diploma system will be overhauled to make it simpler and more flexible, providing honors students even more opportunities to tailor their education. There will be more focus on diversity, especially on students from challenged inner-city and rural areas.

"The minute I heard the president and the provost describe their ambitions and hopes for this, I had no reservations at all," Knox said. "They are looking at something big, something interesting. They want to bring in the best students, and they're ambitious in terms of the scholarships we can raise money for. They're interested in the Honors College as a place in which we can develop interesting and progressive educational experiences that might then be scaled up to the rest of the university."

The Honors College will set the gold standard for Virginia Tech's undergraduate education and its ability to develop VT-shaped individuals, who balance deep disciplinary knowledge with breadth in a variety of topic areas, along with experiential, hands-on learning and a commitment to service through Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

Paul Knox, dean of the Honors College, facilitates a discussion among students in the program.
Paul Knox, dean of the Honors College, facilitates a discussion among students in the program.

Some Honors College students are supported by scholarships that cover the cost of their tuition and often provide additional funding for supplemental activities. Virginia Tech Stamps Scholars, funded by the Stamps Foundation and donors such as David Calhoun (accounting ’79), receive funding for four years for estimated cost of attendance, as well as a generous enrichment fund for experiential learning opportunities.

Moira Miller, a junior from Arlington, Virginia, majoring in physics and Spanish with a minor in green engineering, is one of 12 Stamps Scholars at Virginia Tech this year. She's used her enrichment funds to attend two conferences — the American Astronomical Society's Conference and the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics — at which she presented a poster on astronomical research, as well as to take a two-month trip to Spain that included language classes at the University of Salamanca. She's hoping to fund a research trip to Ecuador next year.

Three years into her Virginia Tech experience, Miller already has worked closely with faculty members in different disciplines and built experience in conducting and presenting research.  She's also exploring and discovering her intellectual passions, aided by close relationships with faculty and fellow honors students.

Miller's roommate, Galina Belolipetski, a junior double-majoring in computer science and music composition, also has benefitted from a Stamps scholarship, which allowed her to attend Virginia Tech as an out-of-state student from Maryland. Along with Miller, she's sharing living space with other honors students majoring in neuroscience and political science, which makes for involved and far-reaching conversations.

"With the easing of my financial burden, I know I can give back to my communities and make a contribution in my fields without anything holding me back," Belolipetski said. "I can pursue an internship position at Fidelity Investments, as I did this past summer, or I can work in an academic setting with a research professor, as I did for another summer. It allows so much flexibility in my personal life, with the addition of growing a strong network of people around the country."

Another Stamps Scholar is Wolfe Glick, a junior from McLean, Virginia, who is double-majoring in economics and computational modeling and data analytics. Glick is the 2016 Pokemon World Championships Masters Division Champion, and he's shaped his educational experience to reflect the skills and network he's acquired through gaming.

Glick chose the computational modeling and data analytics major and later added economics as a complementary option because he likes its mindset and the way it encourages looking at the world. Glick is less concerned with pursuing an intellectual passion than he is in the journey of self-exploration and self-improvement. Next year, he hopes to apply some of his enrichment funds to a trip to Japan and Australia, during which he hopes to create an immersive cultural experience by staying with some of the contacts there he's developed through Pokemon.

David and Barbara Calhoun not only contribute to Stamps scholarships, but also to a named scholarship that assists other honors students. Calhoun scholarships range from $1,000 to full tuition, fees, and room and board, and are targeted to first-generation college students, members of underrepresented groups, or students who are majoring in the liberal arts or humanities.

J.C. Wright, a third-year senior, considered majors in music and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) before choosing philosophy because of its broad applications as a framework that underpins many scientific pursuits. Drawn by Virginia Tech's dedication to service, Wright has used scholarship money not just to fund his education but also a trip to London, during which he trained with a group that teaches philosophy to children. He used that experience to design and teach an elective philosophy class to elementary and middle-school students at Blacksburg New School in the spring.

The shift from an honors program to the Honors College will expand the opportunities for those diverse experiences while also opening the door to accommodate more scholarship-funded students and building a model for the future of Virginia Tech's undergraduate education.

"We're really good. We have some great people here. But we’re not so good [that] we can be complacent or cocky about it," Knox said. That position, paired with the college's developing stature, "gives you room to develop and take on some progressive things."

Written by Mason Adams

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