Celebrating 50 years of Honors education at PSU

Since its humble beginnings in 1969, the PSU Honors College has transformed from a program of fewer than 30 students into a leader in educating first-generation college students and students of color.

In its 50th year, the University Honors College enrolls nearly 800, with a mission of preparing working-class and middle-class students for graduate and professional schooling.

“We're really interested in the college being an engine for social mobility,” says Brenda Glascott, director of the University Honors College. 

University Honors College leaders have planned several ways to celebrate the 50th-anniversary milestone, including two upcoming events.

On Jan. 27, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and screenwriter Michael Chabon will meet with Honors students and hold a public reading. And on April 17, an Alumni Panel will welcome some of the 1,300 Honors College alumni from different generations of the program to talk about how their Honors experience affected their paths.

“Our goal in Honors is to give students the tools to transform their own lives,” Glascott says. “They're the ones who have the agency to actually do the transforming, but by giving them these experiences and this community, we're hoping to catalyze and support their transformation.”

A liberal arts curriculum with an urban focus

Honors students develop research skills and deep knowledge of the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities. 

 The rigorous four-year Honors curriculum is designed to provide students with advanced writing, research and critical thinking skills. 
 

“One of the amazing advantages of Portland State is its location in this incredible city where there's so much opportunity," Glascott says. “We want students to be critically understanding themselves within the context of this city.” 

The urban-focused curriculum may take the form of measuring trees, setting up cameras to monitor urban wildlife, or sifting through the archives at the Oregon Historical Society.

The curriculum and resident faculty are purposefully interdisciplinary. Glascott likens it to “the tiniest liberal arts college.”

In their third year, Honors students can get credit for experiences outside of traditional courses, such as research opportunities and internships. There are also two study abroad opportunities: a spring break sustainability seminar in Borneo and a month-long summer program in London. 

 Chance Hodges, an environmental engineering major, spent 10 days in Borneo with a small group of students and two professors from the Honors College.
 
“The experience was life-changing as it was my first time abroad,” Hodges says. 
 

The final component of the curriculum is the Honors thesis. All Honors students conduct a research project, present their research and write a thesis that is published in PDX.Scholar, the PSU Library’s online journal.

A close-knit community

Honors students and alumni frequently point to the Honors community as being a vital element of their Honors education. 

Benny White, a junior English major, says he applied to the Honors College because he was looking for a smaller academic community within the larger PSU community — a “kind of scholastic family.”

This feeling of community is facilitated by physical spaces on campus. Honors students have their own student lounge and computer lab and the opportunity to live in Honors housing. Additionally, the College’s Community Fellows work to build community for other students via events like movie nights and midterm de-stress parties. 

“The students are really hard-working and generous to each other. That’s one thing I really admire about this community of students. It would be very easy for a group of high-achieving students to have a community that was competitive, but our students are really rooting for each other,” Glascott says.

A transformative history

Alumni outcomes suggest that the Honors College succeeds in its mission of transforming lives.

According to exit surveys, 30 percent of Honors College graduates go directly onto graduate or professional school and another 45 percent plan to enroll within two years. 

“My experience in the Honors College was so valuable because it offered a unique perspective outside of my architecture major,” says Jonathon Brearley an Honors College graduate who is pursuing a Master’s of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He notes that the curriculum expanded his “understanding of architecture's role in the academy and the world.”

Among the current Honors students, 27 percent are first-generation college students, 34 percent are from racially or ethnically marginalized groups and 39 percent are Pell Grant-eligible.

“Those are extraordinary numbers for an Honors College and they make us quite distinct,” Glascott says. 

PSU’s Honors College has a higher percentage of both first-generation and historically underrepresented students than both Oregon State University’s Honors College and the Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. OSU's honors population is 8 percent first-generation and 10 percent historically underrepresented students, and UO's Clark Honors College has 16 percent first-generation students and 23 percent students of color.

Building bridges

One of the alumni who will speak on the April 17 panel is Melanie Billings-Yun. Billings-Yun is an author and international negotiation consultant for some of the world’s top companies and also works as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and PSU’s School of Business.

Billings-Yun says her parents considered her education done when she graduated from high school, but she worked a minimum wage job to save money to take a few classes at PSU. 

She recalls being shocked when she was invited to join Honors.

“In that moment, my life changed,” she says. 

The Honors program nurtured her self-confidence along with her interest in history. The faculty encouraged her to “press on” even when she had to drop out every few terms to earn money to cover her PSU tuition. 

After graduating from PSU with honors, she went on to get a doctorate in diplomatic history from Harvard and then spent 33 years “seeing the world,” Billings-Yun says: 

“I will forever be grateful to PSU and the Honors College for building that bridge for me — and, I am sure, for so many others.”

Story by Summer Allen