Greetings. Thanks for your interest in the University Honors College (UHC). I am happy to tell you several things about it.
Perhaps you already know about Honors Colleges at some other schools, in which case it is useful that I begin by describing the UHC at Pitt in contrast. At many other schools in the U.S., the Honors College contains a small enclave of superior students who are sequestered among a larger community of undergraduate students, provided their own curriculum, and often required to pursue a fixed set of goals. That is not the situation at Pitt. There is no such thing as membership in the UHC; there is no secret handshake or any other element of an exclusionary enterprise. Rather, the UHC embodies the ideals of research and scholarship, and of excellence inside and outside the classroom, library, and laboratory. We encourage undergraduate students to pursue an education that is characterized by remarkable breadth and depth, to explore the great variety of academic disciplines, to determine their own interests and talents, and to seek intellectual challenges and stimulation. What makes the UHC a college is that it can confer a unique degree, the Bachelor of Philosophy; more on that below.
The mission of the honors college is to assist the University of Pittsburgh in meeting the special academic and co-curricular needs of our most able, motivated, and inquisitive students. There are five pillars in the structure of the UHC. One is the honors courses, which provide in-depth treatments of disciplinary or interdisciplinary topics rather than treatments that are just specialized, advanced, or accelerated. Honors courses stress critical thinking and synthesis, and the historical and theoretical foundations of the discipline. Emphasis is given to primary sources rather than to reviews or survey texts. The UHC now sponsors close to 90 courses per academic year, which are available to undergraduate students in virtually all the disciplines on campus. The courses may be introductory in content or advanced electives, in a lecture format or seminar. Their class size averages 15-19 students, although enrollment in some lecture classes exceeds 50. All of them are challenging courses in which students have to work harder than they do in regular classes. They have to read more, they have to write more, and they have to talk more in class, and in consequence they learn more.
The second pillar is the academic community of excellent students who interact with each other, support each other, and learn from each other. Critical to the formation of a community at the University of Pittsburgh are the three honors residence halls. (Such buildings on college campuses used to be called “dormitories” because students slept there. Now the buildings are called “residence halls” because it is recognized that students do more than sleep there; they live there.) Students in honors housing have interests in virtually every academic discipline. They characterize themselves as serious about getting an education in college and serious about their plans for what they will do after they graduate (and serious about having fun, too, they add). They work hard and effectively, and they succeed, and they want to interact with other serious and successful students. In addition to sharing living space these students study together, they socialize with each other, and they share ideas and experiences.
The third pillar is advising. Having recruited talented students to the University of Pittsburgh, we will not neglect them on the assumption that they should be able to figure out for themselves how best to proceed. Instead, we provide four kinds of distinctive advising: (1) One group of advisors prepares students to compete for prestigious national awards. (2) Another group meets with students having career interests in the health professions. (3) The UHC Community Engagement Office provides advising to students who seek opportunities in community service. (4) “Supplemental” academic advising focuses on cultivating students’ intellectual interests through coursework, research, and other opportunities within and outside the University. Unlike most other advisors on campus, UHC advisors do not provide details about individual courses or majors in developing a schedule for the upcoming semester. Instead, each advisor brokers opportunities and seeks to engage students in thinking about their education during college and beyond.
The fourth pillar is the UHC research programs. One, the Brackenridge Summer Research Program, provides fellowship support for 40-45 undergraduate students while they conduct an independent research project under the guidance of a faculty mentor. The selected group of Fellows is intended to be more or less equally divided among students with major interests in the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, and pre-professional schools. In addition, the Fellows meet for several hours each week and present their research to one another, describing what they are doing and what they have found, and explaining why it is worth doing. In the last few years, the Brackenridge Research Fellowship Program has been expanded to include the Fall and Spring semesters. A second summer program is the Honors College - Health Sciences (HCHS) Summer Research Fellowship Program, which was inaugurated to accommodate undergraduate students who plan to pursue a career in one of the health-related fields. Like the Brackenridge Program, the HCHS Program is broad and multidisciplinary, with student interests ranging from neuroscience and pharmacology to public health and psychiatry. HCHS Fellows conduct an independent project in biomedical research under the mentorship of faculty members in any of the six Health Sciences Schools at the University of Pittsburgh (i.e., Dental Medicine, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Public Health, and Health and Rehabilitation Sciences). In addition, the Fellows attend a weekly seminar during which they present reports on their research to one another. A third program is the Community-Based Research (CBR) Program. During each Fall and Spring semester, undergraduate students receive a fellowship to conduct original research projects that explore an issue of importance to the community. The CBR Fellows work with a community or non-profit organization in addition to faculty mentors, and report on their progress in interdisciplinary seminars held weekly during the semester. A fourth program is the Beckman Scholars Program, which helps to prepare undergraduate students for graduate-level study and careers in the life sciences fields. The Beckman Scholars conduct independent research projects under the guidance of one of 15 approved faculty mentors from the Department of Bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering or from the Departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, or Neuroscience in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
Finally, the fifth pillar is the distinctive University-wide degree, the Bachelor of Philosophy (BPhil). This degree is available to those students whose education includes experiences that are deeper than those that satisfy the ordinary Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degrees. Depth is obtained by independent research, summarized in a written thesis document that is presented publicly and defended before a committee of faculty members that includes an examiner from outside the University. These tasks resemble what graduate students typically do in pursuit of a Master’s degree and always in pursuit of a PhD degree. But the BPhil is a bachelor’s degree, and no other school anywhere gives this degree with the expectation that undergraduate students perform like graduate students do in this respect. In essence, the BPhil degree provides graduate level research training for undergraduate students; it is the highest certification of academic achievement that is awarded to an undergraduate student at this institution.
To summarize, the UHC provides a collection of terrific opportunities for those undergraduate students who seek to obtain an enriched education. The UHC offers stimulating and challenging courses, a supportive and nurturing intellectual environment, expert and personalized advising, several faculty-mentored research programs, and a unique degree symbolizing academic achievement and an outstanding educational experience.