Quite an Honor


Juan Pedraza

Document Type


Publication Date



Quite an Honor

Contrary to some popular notions, the University of North Dakota Honors Program isn't designed for elite students.

"Oh, no, not at all," said Dr. Sally Pyle, a medical scientist who is director of the UND Honors Program. "Honors basically offers students an alternative way to study and prepare for their degrees. We're not looking for the highest scores; we're looking for students who are interested in experimenting with different ways of learning, who want to talk and write about ideas, who're willing to look at an issue from different perspectives."

"Some students just love that, and they blossom under those conditions," Pyle said. "However, it's not for everyone."

In general, Pyle explained, Honors includes a variety of courses, teaching styles, and educational objectives.

"I'd say the most critical factor in Honors is flexibility," Pyle said. "The key objective is academic enrichment, based on close advisement of students and working with them to achieve their goals. Honors also has a very strong service learning component, including community service."

The Honors Program this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. The celebrations were highlighted by a visit to campus by Dr. James Orbinski, former director of Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières) who accepted the group's Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for the organizations's pioneering approach to medical humanitarianism. He spoke to the community as part of UND's Great Conversation Series, which invites famous and influential speakers to campus to share insights into the public and personal moments of their lives.

Dr. Orbinski is a globally recognized humanitarian advocate, and one of the world's leading scholars in global health. His work in the areas of access to medicines and health care, medical humanitarianism in war and social crisis, and global health policy made for a fascinating discussion during the Great Conversation. The event was sponsored by the UND Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Office, Student Government, and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

The UND Honors Program began in the first semester of 1961. The unveiling of the new program under the coordination of Dr. Donald Gillmore resulted from a discussion between then-President George Starcher and Gillmore concerning the possibilities for starting a flexible program for students. This program would encourage, challenge and to press undergraduates toward academic accomplishment and continued education.

Starcher announced the establishment of (and funding for) UND's first four-year Honors Program in August, 1961. Before the start of the semester, an Honors Committee was appointed in arranging for selection of students and planning the curriculum. That committee today comprises faculty members and students from across campus.

The "Honors House" was established at 406 Harvard under the direction of Dr. R. Hampsten, the new Honors Program coordinator 1973-74.

Following the 97 Flood, the Honors Program was relocated to Robertson/Sayre on the UND Campus.

Honors students are recruited usually from among the high school seniors applying to UND.

"One of the most exciting things about Honors is that we get to teach a small group of students who have read the material and are excited about learning," said Pyle. "We have a lot of freedom to really explore issues and to look at them from multiple points of view. It's a fun program to be in because there are always new things happening."

"Faculty in Honors develop new courses every semester, inspired by their own interests and the students'," David said. "And the courses' methods are often as innovative as their topics. The program won the Founders' Day Departmental Excellence in Service Award in 2008 and the Departmental Teaching Award in 2011."

The Honors Program focuses on six core goals, according to Robin David, a UND Teaching & Learning and English alumna and the Honors Program's associate director: thinking, writing, speaking, scholarly inquiry/research, civic engagement, and perspective.

"Those six also coincide with what the new Essential Studies goals ended up being," said David, a Wahpeton, N.D., native. "When we're reading the Honors applications of high school students, it's evidence of those skills that we're looking for, and it's those skills that we're looking to nurture while they're in Honors, from the first class through their last. Those six goals really guide everything that we do in Honors."

Pyle was recently asked by the National Collegiate Honors Council—a national association of university honors programs—to evaluate other Honors programs around the country.

"I really learned in looking at other, much bigger honors programs, that UND compares very favorably," Pyle said. "(Former UND Honors director) Jean Anderegg did an amazing job of looking at the national standard and put together a program that is outstanding. We meet the high standards put out by the NCHC. And that says a lot for a small program at a middle-size university."

The Honors Program hosts an undergraduate research conference every spring, which is open to any student on campus, not just those enrolled in the program.

"The Undergraduate Working and Learning Group has actually been looking at our classes to use as a model for the First Year Experience," Pyle said. "We have a lot to offer the University as a whole but that doesn't mean that every student has to be part of Honors."

Additionally, there is Honors Housing on campus.

"Johnstone-Fulton has floors that are dedicated to Honors students," David said. "We don't restrict those: non-Honors students can be in there, too. Students on those floors form a learning community which includes the non-Honors students who live there. That has a ripple effect across campus. You get students who are being influenced by this learning community; I think this enhances the entire campus."

"Honors students are very engaged and active in their classes," David said. "They can take those skills into other classes that they are enrolled in. It's not just using that kind of active engaged learning in their Honors classes and sitting quietly in other classes."

There are students from every college on campus enrolled in Honors.

A key factor in the ongoing success of the Honors Program is the relationship between the faculty members/mentors and the students.

"We know our students very well," Pyle said. "And because we know them so well, we can be flexible in what we allow them to do. We can help them set up programs that are specifically designed for them. They can get a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science with Honors as their major. They don't have to have another major. We have the ability to help them design their own education, one that fully meets UND standards."

Most Honors students have a companion major, e.g., Honors and English or Honors and Mathematics or a BS in Biology and BS in Honors. A handful every year graduates with Honors as their only major.

"Honors classes aren't harder, just different," said David, who also is president of the board of directors for the Global Friends Coalition, a nonprofit that fosters the integration of New Americans in the Grand Forks community.

"There's a misconception about Honors because of the way honors is treated in some high schools—where students think these classes are so much harder," David said. "This is one of the things that National Collegiate Honors Council wants—they don't want Honors courses to be harder, but different. For example, rather than being exam-based, we have our students write papers, we have them discuss, we have them debate, we have them do other kinds of projects."

"We have to be really nimble," David said. "It's exciting, invigorating, and inspiring.

Juan Pedraza

Writer and Editor, University Relations

This document is currently not available here.