By Darby Murnane Contributing Writer

The new Director of the UMF Honors Program, John Messier, plans to bring new life to the program by working to increase student engagement, bolster involvement in community service, and foster a better cohesion throughout the program as a whole.

   The current Honors Program is facing a number of challenges in trying to create a meaningful experience for its students, the foremost of which is a distinct lack of student involvement.

   “We have a lot of students who aren’t really active in the program,” Messier said. “A lot of students come in their freshman year and they’re quite excited about the program and they take a course or two but then over time, there’s not a draw to bring them back in.”

   To combat this issue, Messier intends to increase the number of required credits as the current requirement is a minimum of 12. To ease of the burden of accumulating the requisite credits for students with larger majors, more general-education honors classes may be created so students can fulfill core requirements while also gaining honors credit.

   Messier is also exploring ways to give students more autonomy over their honors experience. “I’m really thinking about focusing the Honors Program on a project-based learning model, so that students have more agency and ownership over their learning and are doing some of it outside the classroom,” Messier said.

   Students would have a great deal of flexibility over what these projects could be–a presentation on a study abroad experience, research, or even working with a volunteer organization. The hope is that the projects could be a culminating piece of the students’ honors experiences that give them a specific goal to work towards.

   Messier defines the idea as something that’s “intensely personal about finding a meaningful project for the students but that they’re doing outside the classroom so they have to figure out how to solve problems, how to be autonomous, how to achieve their ends.”

  Steven Pane, a professor of music and honors instructor at UMF, supports this idea as it aligns with his goals in honors courses. “I see myself trying to encourage student-oriented projects for the campus,” Pane said. “For example, I was an active member in a student run philosophy group in which the students selected their own readings to discuss and debate.”

   While the independence over larger projects can be daunting, Pane is highly confident with the students he’s worked with. “[Honors] students are really self-motivated and there’s in intensity about what they do,” Pane said. “They’re not afraid to go off into a weirder area which is often where brilliance lies. Students really need to be given space to find their own way.”

   When students are not in the classroom, Messier is hoping to increase the community service aspect to the program in order to give back to those in need as well as to keep students more involved.

   “A change for the program could be that students have to accumulate so many hours or do so much community service,” Messier said. “And perhaps during semester’s where they’re not taking an honors course, the expectation is that they’re going to do some sort of community service or involvement, to keep them active and engaged in the program.”

   Honors student Rowan Burns, a Junior Early Childhood Education and Psychology major, is eager to partake in volunteer service, however as a busy student, she is worried that reaching a set amount of hours may be difficult.

   “I think the volunteering idea is good as a concept, but not so great as a practice. It leaves little to no room for Education students who need to do student teaching and internship, students who transferred and don’t have a lot of extra time, or students who enter the program later on and are already struggling with time by taking extra classes,” Burns said in an email interview. “If exceptions and adjustments could be made for those students then I think it will work, but if not then it’s only going to further limit opportunities.”

   There are also service-oriented travel courses in the works. Messier is currently working on setting up a trip to the highlands of Guatemala to build stoves for the Mayan families living there. The service aspect of the trip would greatly cut down on the cost as it would not be for credit, therefore students would not have to pay for tuition.