A few weeks ago I had lunch with a Pitt alumna who presented herself as an alumnus of the University Honors College (UHC), an identification I always find interesting given that we do not have a membership structure. While treasuring her experience at the University of Pittsburgh as a whole, she felt her connection with the UHC was especially significant in her personal development. Indeed, she stated that the UHC was the main source of her education, her friends, her interests, and of course, her BPhil degree.
This alumna graduated in 1999. She recalls a relatively small honors community who frequently congregated at the Honors Center, which was confined to the 35th floor of the Cathedral of Learning. She was surprised to learn that honors housing now occupies three residence halls on campus and contributes greatly to the honors community. We also talked about the inclusion of pre-health professional students in the pool of students receiving advising from the UHC. She mentioned that when she was a student, pre-med students were considered too focused on the future and too narrow in their interests, although she was quick to note that Philosophy majors can be rather narrow too. She was shocked that the UHC now had fourteen staff members because in the late 1990s there were only four. She was pleased to know that the summer Brackenridge research program had been extended into the fall and spring semesters, and that the number of students pursuing a BPhil degree had more than doubled to 40+ annually. Finally, she was delighted to hear that an annual award, named after G. Alec Stewart, the charismatic and much admired founding dean of the UHC, is now given to accomplished junior undergraduate students. These are students who embody the traditional values of the UHC, which include intellectual curiosity and academic achievement as well as a character dimension consisting of citizenship and leadership skills.
Unlike this alumna, I was not an undergraduate student on this campus. I have served in various roles at Pitt for over forty years before coming into the Honors College, but my experiences have been rather different than those of our alumni. In order to gain a broader perspective, I have spent a lot of time talking with current students about their experiences here, but I especially value the less frequent conversations I have had with alumni for whom involvement with the UHC has shaped the direction of their personal and professional lives. It is evident to me that the UHC has grown substantially since it was founded in 1987; the quality of undergraduate education at Pitt also has improved tremendously in that time period, and I believe those two developments are not unrelated. However, that growth and expansion have been accompanied by changes in the type of community the UHC fosters and where this community develops. What was once a relatively small group of students who gathered on the 35th floor of the Cathedral is now the larger and more diverse community we see in our Honors Residence Halls, among our Brackenridge fellows, and in various student-driven initiatives.
By interacting with this alumna and many others during my two years as Dean, I have learned the value that the honors community holds for students both past and present. My vision is that the way in which that sense of community was fostered and united a small group of students in the past can be adapted into a larger and more inclusive Honors College that engages many more of the excellent students on campus. The lunch concluded with each of us having a better perspective on the present because of our understanding of the past. Not a surprise.
Edward M. Stricker
University Honors College
Photo Credit: Chris Chirdon.