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Centennial Professor of Economics Philip Jefferson (left) leads his honors students though a seminar in mid-February.

Would You Do the Honors?

Graduates of Swarthmore’s distinctive program employ skills in their daily lives

Honors students are oblivious to time when they’re in the classroom. Three-hour evening seminars extend into discussions lasting until after midnight. When a professor stands to announce the end of class, students cluster like bees around a honey pot, protesting and pleading: “But we’re not done yet!” “Just one more question?” Professors leave only when each student is satisfied.

Two members of the College faculty have experienced honors as both students and teachers. 

Richard Valelly ’75, Claude C. Smith ’14 Professor of Political Science, says, “The idea that intellectual life is not only intense but also pleasurable was the principle I took away from honors. The Honors Program is the efficient secret that underlies the commitment to academic excellence at Swarthmore. Even for those not in honors, it regulates the entire life of the College in a way that’s not heavy-handed but supports a serious commitment to thinking, talking, and writing about ideas.”

For Professor of Educational Studies Lisa Smulyan ’79, “Honors was a really appropriate, supportive way of ‘doing Swarthmore’ for me. I encourage students to take a seminar, if possible, for the powerful learning experience it provides, engaging deeply with a group of people on a particular topic, then doing an oral exam and feeling like they’re part of a larger intellectual community.”

The Honors Program, based on the Oxford tutorial system, was initiated in 1922 by President Frank Aydelotte. One of the oldest in the country, about 25 percent of juniors enroll in the program. In seminars, all must participate in erudite discussions based on papers they’ve written and shared with the group. 

In some disciplines, students can choose to write a thesis instead of one seminar. In others, seminars are replaced by pairs of related courses or a performance or artistic presentation.  Part of the final examining procedure for all candidates includes a 45-minute oral exam on their learning with outside experts, often alumni. 

The program is rigorous, the time preceding orals nerve-wracking. Yet most honors candidates, once engaged in discussion with their examiners, find the oral exams uplifting. Testing their knowledge with experts and receiving positive feedback, they leave the exam room jubilant at having conversed on equal footing with a distinguished scholar.   

Scholarship displayed by Swarthmore honors students is often compared to that of graduate students at other schools. By graduation, many have authored academic publications and/or presented at conferences.

Craig Williamson, Alfred H. and Peggi Bloom Professor of  English Literature and Honors Program Coordinator, says, “When I talk to honors alumni, they say that doing honors is the most important thing they ever did in terms of their work. And honors graduates are not just academics. They represent all walks of life.” 

Here is a sampling of some of Swarthmore’s diverse honors graduates:  

 

Patricia Park ’03, an English literature major with a psychology minor, noting her “immigrant, blue-collar background,” says, “Being in honors was like having to learn another foreign language. That posed a problem for me. I had to step up my game and fast. 

“Swarthmore and the honors seminars threw me into the rarified world of academia. I learned how to engage academically. It was great primer for grad school and good preparation for teaching college students.” 

Now a writer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Korea Times, Park has taught writing at Queens College in New York City, Boston College, and Ewha Woman’s University. Her debut novel Re Jane, a Korean-American take on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, will be published by Penguin this spring. 

Walter Luh ’99 is the founder of Corona Labs, which enables everyone to build apps for smartphones and other devices 10 times faster. It was recently acquired by Fuse Powered.

Luh says that reading James Michener ’29’s autobiography influenced his decision to pursue an honors physics major with a minor in Asian studies. He especially enjoyed the seminars. “It was really satisfying to go through the process of understanding new ideas and then presenting them in my own words.”

Ironically, Luh, says, it was the Asian studies component—“so different from the hard sciences”—that was difficult. 

“My seminar on Greater China was in the political science department. The sheer amount of reading was probably the most stressful part.”

Drawing parallels between his career and doing honors, Luh says that the same passion for excellence that inspired the Swarthmore slogan “anywhere else it would have been an A” is equally prevalent among those seeking success in the startup business. 

“The Honors Program really gave me the ability—skills, discipline, and confidence—to make it happen.”

Anne Schuchat ’80, H’95, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Center for Disease Control, was an honors philosophy major and honors biology minor. Deciding to participate in the Honors Program was easy, she says. 

“The size of seminars and the opportunity to focus intensively on issues together with classmates and professors seemed to be the essence of the Swarthmore experience,” Schuchat says. “My cohort of students majoring or minoring in philosophy was stimulating, and our professors were inspiring.”

Philosophy professor Hugh Lacey’s seminar on The History and Philosophy of Science in particular “provided insights that I return to frequently,” Schuchat says. “The need to write and present to peers on a weekly basis and tackle complicated issues in a finite period of time is very relevant for life in public health. Whether I’m considering the values that enter into parents’ considerations on having their children vaccinated or managing the emergency response to pandemic influenza or the Ebola epidemic in the context of resource constraints, the experience of tackling life’s big questions in the honors philosophy program is helpful.”

Robert Scher ’89, first assistant secretary of defense for strategies, plans, and capabilities, says that the Honors Program is one of the things that lured him to Swarthmore. The history major got an early chance to see the seminar format in a special first-year course and found it a useful and worthwhile approach to education. “I was hooked from the beginning,” he says. 

“The cooperative learning environment was tremendously helpful,” Scher says. “Thanks to the connections with my professors, I learned how to learn, take tests, interpret and incorporate information, and articulate what I’d learned in a way that made sense.”

Scher believes that doing honors contributed to his career success. The professors serving as discussion facilitators rather than information distributors were especially influential.

“Most of my work involves some kind of collective search for an answer or a process, and the ability to work in groups, present my own ideas and listen to the ideas of others, then compile those ideas into a useful whole, was definitely enhanced by being in the Honors Program.”

Katherine “KC” Cushman ’12, an honors biology major, honors engineering minor, and course math minor chose honors when she switched majors from engineering to biology early in her junior year. 

“When I changed my major, I was very interested in using tools from engineering and math to explore biological questions,” Cushman says. “When it was time to review for honors exams, it was neat to see how the same principles of fluids were used in biomechanics, water quality, and my senior thesis investigating plasticity and mechanics of barnacle feeding behavior.” 

Cushman says that the Honors Program helped define her career path.

“Although my interest in math and science began before Swarthmore, the first time I seriously considered pursuing a Ph.D. was during my senior thesis research, working with Professor of Biology Rachel Merz and participating in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates Program.” 

Cushman followed graduation from Swarthmore with a two-year internship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama before embarking on a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University. 

Leonard Isamu Nakamura ’69, a vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, majored in honors economics, math, and political science at a time when eight honors exams were required. He even took two honors seminars in psychology for course credit.     

“I really liked seminars,” he says, “and learned as much from fellow students as from the faculty, who were, for the most part, quite amazing.”

Nakamura has fond memories of  the late Professor of Economics Bernard “Bernie” Saffran and his seminar on economic theory—“for me an enduring model of great teaching,” he says. 

“And the econometrics paper I wrote for a seminar on linear programing and econometrics, taught by Bernie and mathematics professor Eugene Klotz, helped me get my job as a research assistant and upped my ability to connect economic theory to the real world.” 

Being in college at a time of student protest, Nakamura says, created an intellectual ferment that “deepened our considerations of the issues we studied, adding further value to the honors courses I took.”

Antoinette Sayeh ’79, former minister of finance to Liberia, is director of the International Monetary Fund’s African Department in Washington, D.C. An economics major and history minor, Sayeh chose honors “because it promised to allow me to delve deeply into issues, in small groups, with lots of individual attention from professors,” she says.     

“It was the in-depth research, then presenting it to my classmates and getting feedback from them that I enjoyed most,” she adds.

“You had to be very engaged, whether you were presenting or not,” she says. “I was shy and found it difficult sometimes to express my thoughts, but the small group offered the level of comfort I needed to speak up. In honors, I gained a degree of confidence that still helps me today.” 

 

Dan Hammer ’07 is a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley and a 2014 Presidential Innovation Fellow who is helping NASA design its open-data policy. Though expecting honors economics to be stressful, he found his experience to be “consistent with the values I care most about: thoughtfulness, caring, and empathy with both the subjects and people you engage with intellectually.”

The program helped Hammer after college: “I mentally reference honors a lot in my daily life. I’m a programmer now, and I didn’t study computer science ever. I learned skills after college that I use daily, thanks to the honors approach to learning.”

 

Mara Hvistendahl ’02 is a journalist and the author of Unnatural Selection, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Before Swarthmore, she studied Chinese and Spanish.

“An honors major in comparative literature in English and Spanish, with a Chinese minor, offered me the opportunity to go beyond the basic language classes I would have taken otherwise,” she says.

Hvistendahl, who opted to write a thesis, says, “The experience of spending long hours reading and compiling a thesis prepared me for writing books. Regular meetings with professors readied me for interviewing experts.”

Thanks to her honors experience, Hvistendahl says, she enjoys lasting relationships with her Chinese professors, even though, Chinese was a chore because of  “all the rote memorization involved in learning the language.” Now, she lives in Shanghai and speaks Chinese daily.

Dan Perelstein ’09, a composer and award-winning sound designer in the Philadelphia theater arena, was an honors major in music and honors minor/course major in engineering at a time when neither department had many honors candidates. “My honors exams became an avenue for the College to find world-class experts in my very specific fields to come and work with me, examine my knowledge base, and push me further down the road,” says Perelstein.

Since he was seeking a job in a field without a clear career ladder to climb, Perestein says, “I had to be able to paint a picture of myself as an expert in my line of work. The Honors Program taught me to feel secure in viewing myself that way.”

Tara Zahra ’98, a professor of East European history at the University of Chicago, award-winning author, and 2014 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, double majored in history honors and economics course. 

“Honors students get a graduate-school experience as an undergrad,” she says. “You have to take responsibility and advance your own learning. In terms of history, it teaches you to think less like a consumer of history and more like somebody who might produce history at some point.” 

Distributing papers to all seminar participants and responding to their comments during scholarly discussions was challenging, “but I loved it,” she says. 

Zahra was inspired not only to continue to pursue history research but to emulate the honors teaching format.

“Now I have this vision of what a really great undergraduate or even graduate course should be like,” she says. “I haven’t quite been able to live up to it, but it’s an ideal.” 

Alberto Mora ’74, H’08, senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, is an attorney and former general counsel to the Navy who in the early 1990s led an effort to oppose coercive interrogation methods used on detainees at Guantánamo Bay. An English literature major who also enjoyed political science courses, Mora says he was “delighted by the small seminars demanding comprehensive study of the subjects, often held in professors’ homes. 

“The intensity of inquiry and discussion, the academic rigor, and frequent writing assignments taught me lessons that were qualitatively different from the traditional classroom experience,” Mora adds. “There’s no anonymity in a seminar, no hiding in the back row. You’re required to be up. And you want to be. I went through three years of law school thinking that the whole lecture-hall format had nothing to do with education. The Swarthmore honors seminars ruined me for any other kind of educational format.”

Although the preceding array of alumni found honors stressful—especially before orals—when asked if they’d do it again, the answer was a nearly unanimous “Absolutely!” Park, the lone standout, says, chuckling, that she still mourns the Paces parties she missed due to honors preparations. 

 

+ Click for talks by Sayeh, Hvistendahl, and Mora.