Honorable Experiences

From: Public Affairs

James Madison University's Honors Program has an unofficial slogan: "different, not more." Program Director Dr. Barry Falk explains that the honors students have to take the same amount of credits and fulfill the same requirements to graduate as any other JMU student. However, their experience will be different: their classes more discussion-based, students better prepared for class, students ready to challenge their professors and a built-in sense of community shape the honors students' JMU experience.

More and more students have started recognizing the virtues of JMU's honors program. This year 600 early-action applications for admission to the honors program have been submitted compared to 200 last year. Over 1,700 total applications were received each of the last two years, compared to 800 three years ago. The implementation of new programs and marketing efforts help explain the increase in interest compared to past years.

"What I'm really excited about is the change from coming to JMU and joining the honors program after the student has already decided to come here, to students choosing JMU in order to be a part of its honors program," said Falk.

Academic Program
JMU's honors program offers students a variety of ways to participate. Students can enter the program as freshmen, sophomores or in their junior year to focus on a senior honors project. Freshmen apply to the program based on their high-school transcripts. Current JMU students are required to have a 3.5 cumulative GPA to apply for admission. All students in the honors program are required to maintain a 3.25 cumulative GPA.

Honors sections of existing classes are restricted to honors students and are capped at 20 students per class. Honors seminars are special classes created by faculty and honors options allows the student to make any class an honors class by contracting with the faculty member to enhance their class syllabus. Approximately 200 honors options are granted each semester. The senior honors project is a three-semester, faculty-mentored research or creative project in the student's major.

Student Perspective
For sophomores Seana Sears and Taylor Selby, coming to JMU was all about seeking challenges. Sears and Selby accepted the responsibilities of the honors program and found themselves among other highly motivated students at JMU.

After her first year as an honors student, Sears developed an appreciation for her decision to join the honors program. “Being in the honors program has made me feel important and like I’m a part of something really great,” said Sears. “At such a big school with so many students, the honors program has provided an opportunity for me to stand out.”

Adds Selby, "Being an honor student represents being one of the top students at the university. It shows that you are dedicated to your studies, which is rewarded with perks like living in the honors hall, early registration, smaller honors classes and honors seminars."

Value Added
Falk and his staff have worked hard to develop the honors program outside of the classroom as well. In collaboration with the Office of Residence Life, one wing of Shenandoah Hall is reserved solely for honors students, which fosters an enriched living and learning environment for 200 driven individuals.

“I was constantly surrounded by people who were just like me, in that they worked very hard for classes,” said Sears. “Living with all of these amazing, intelligent people made my transition from high school to college that much better.”

Great success with the honors hall has sparked high retention rates and led to the expansion of the program within Shenandoah Hall. “We are looking to incorporate half of another wing to accommodate 300 to 400 students,” said Falk.

The honors program also initiated an honors seminar abroad for freshmen and sophomores in May 2010. Twenty students and two faculty members participated in this experiential learning trip.
Students prepared for the class throughout the spring semester to gear up for their three weeks in London. Responsible for conducting independent research before and during the trip, students were required to share their experiences at a fall symposium with faculty, students and prospective honors students.

“While our days were filled with class time, museums and field trips, we also had plenty of time to explore London and get to really know the city,” said Selby. “Instead of a straight lecture from the professors, we taught each other and were allowed to enter a free-flowing discussion amongst ourselves.”

The success of the first honors seminar abroad has led to plans to expand the program to Florence and Barcelona in coming years.

Moving forward
Plans are in place to create scholarships for extraordinary off-campus academic experiences for juniors, to expand the honors hall and the study abroad seminar.

Falk insists none of this would be possible without the support of the university. "We have a strong supporting cast: the honors program administrative staff, all the deans, the provost and the faculty and staff of the university make the honors program work," said Falk.

The passion and delight Falk, the faculty and the students have for the program is evident. "I love our program. I'm passionate about it. I can't wait to tell the prospective students about our honors program," said Falk.

For prospective students attending Choices, April 15 or 18, there will be two Honors Program information sessions at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. in Grafton-Stovall Theatre.

An Honors Program Open House runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Hillcrest House the same days.


For more information on the Honors Program visit their website at http://www.jmu.edu/honorsprog/.

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By Paula Polglase and Lisl Magboo ('12), Public Affairs

April 14, 2011