HCA election poses Honors College conundrum

Ian Sams

On Wednesday, students in the Honors College will elect the second president of the Honors College Assembly. In its first year, HCA carried out service projects, created student programming, and hosted lecturers. It has provided a valuable outlet for students interested in deepening their honors experience at Alabama, and it should be commended.

But as it enters its second year, HCA finds itself at a crossroads. Its governing documents need reform – and, I must add, that process has seemingly begun. Officers and committees need more structure and clearer definitions. More students in the Honors College need access to the resources and opportunities HCA provides, and perceptions of the honors program need to change in the broader student body.

When I first came to campus, the Honors Program Student Association filled the role of organizing body for honors students. HPSA was disorganized and small – a representation of the still-blooming Honors College of its time. As HCA moves forward, it’s important that we reflect on our current honors curriculum and the broader place of the Honors College in campus life.

Over the past half-decade, UA President Robert Witt’s recruitment of “the best and brightest,” as he likes to say, has ballooned the size of our Honors College. Students from dozens of states and from all across Alabama now come together in the honors program to enrich their academic experiences. (As a political science major, I personally have broadened my education through honors courses on the origins of the New Testament and on social entrepreneurship.)

But as the Honors College has grown so too have the desires of its students. No longer do students simply see UHP, CBHP, or IHP as academic outlets; now they want a unique student experience, full of programs, events and networking opportunities.

As those desires have changed, HCA has established itself as the coordinating mechanism for those new experiences. HCA sponsors information sessions on Washington, D.C., internships, hosts autumn pumpkin carvings, and serves campus artists through open-mic nights. Beyond that, HCA organizes student organization seating for honors students and works with Honors College administrators to set college policy.

The shaky truth is that our Honors College – and specifically our HCA – has evolved into a nebulous organization. It’s part academic programming, part student affairs, part government for honors students. It’s so much. (It’s perhaps too much.)

While the honors experience has widened in the past few years, publicly it has seen mixed perceptions.

Many students see the Honors College, and more importantly its students, as elite and exclusive – catering only to itself and ignoring partnerships across campus. The University Fellows program regularly takes beatings, as its students receive top treatment and seem to have access to higher achievement than “average” students. Honors students win the awards and net massive scholarship checks – with many of them stacking scholarships to amass small fortunes (at least to college kids) throughout their time as undergraduates.

Perception, as they say, is reality. And the reality in the Honors College is that, for too long, many have failed to act in curbing negative perceptions.

The Honors College and HCA must highlight not only the upper echelon of honors students — Fellows, the Academic Elites, presidential scholars — but also the honors students who now contribute to the college and its curriculum and experience who come from lower income families, who are first-generation college students, or who don’t rack up the scholarship bucks from the University. There are countless students who fit these molds in our new, expanded Honors College.

HCA, in its second year, should not ask these students to come to them; rather, they should actively seek out the honors students from rural areas, from poorer homes, from different backgrounds to highlight them and their contributions to campus at large. It should make them the priority of their programming, and it should reinvent itself as an organization for all students, not simply the elite.

Our Honors College boasts students capable of reaching any profession and of changing the world. And the Honors College Assembly now must unite those students in their undergraduate years to show our campus the inclusive, representative body it really is.


Ian Sams is a senior majoring in political science. His column runs weekly on Mondays.