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Currents: global perspectives in washington

Colby-Sawyer Wesson Honors Students Gain Global Perspectives at National Conference

A delegation of the Wesson Honors Program traveled with program coordinator and Humanities Professor Ann Page Stecker to Washington, D.C., to take part in the annual conference of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) this fall. Staying at the downtown Grand Hyatt, Amanda Gibbons '12, Meghan Steele '11 and Megan Ruggiero '10 spent three days at the end of October with Professor Stecker attending seminars, making connections, and forming new ideas to bring back to the Wesson Honors Program at Colby-Sawyer College.

The Wesson Honors Program is open to students who maintain a 3.75 GPA in high school (before this year, the requirement was 3.5) and offers academic, cultural and social opportunities for the most highly motivated and capable of Colby-Sawyer's students who combine a solid work ethic and natural ability with intellectual curiosity. Recipients of the college's top academic scholarship of $64,000 (over four years), members of the Wesson Honors Program are committed to taking on leadership roles in a community of scholars and participating as catalysts for inquiry and discussion across the college. The Wesson Honors Program is a member of the NCHC, an association founded in 1966 that supports institutions and individuals developing, implementing and expanding honors education.

An Honors Tradition

The annual conference, always held in a different major American city, attracts nearly 2,000 honors students and professors from across the country who take part in themed panels, seminars and informative workshops that allow them to collaborate and explore current issues.

Professor Stecker, who has attended the conference numerous times since 1999, has seen it shift its themes to reflect bigger ideas. “In 2000, the conference took place in D.C. and the event was centered on the theme of 'Capital Ideas.' Returning for the 2009 conference, it was interesting to see how much has changed in the last decade,” she said. Stecker explained that the change in the city was evident in the conference theme changing to “Honors in the Global City” in 2009 in order to reflect the country's developing global consciousness.

The coming together of people from all over the country and world was evident through themed seminars and interactions the Colby-Sawyer representatives shared with other students and professors. Ruggiero found value in the opportunity to collaborate with others attending the conference. “I enjoyed meeting students from different regions of the country,” she said. “There were people from Arizona speaking with people from Rhode Island speaking with other people from Ohio. Different people bring diverse ideas to the table.”

The importance of being able to communicate with members of other honors programs continues to be a major reason why Colby-Sawyer students and faculty return to the NCHC conference each year. Stecker considers the conference her lifeline to the larger collegiate honors community, and enjoys reconnecting with old friends there while gaining endless amounts of new information. She explains, “Colby-Sawyer's affiliation with NCHC helps me to measure the Wesson program against external standards.”

The Wesson Honors Program is named for Jan and Bill Wesson, whose 2004 gift created an endowment in support of the college's honors program and spurred a revitalization of the initiative on campus.

Conference Strategy: Divide and Conquer

In Washington, the three Colby-Sawyer students became increasingly aware of the benefits of being able to evaluate their honors program through learning about those at other colleges. Hearing big ideas from representatives of universities, Ruggiero considered ways to implement them at a small college. “The conference made me think about how we could morph some of the ideas we were presented with into programs and events for a small liberal arts colleges,” she said.

As representatives of Colby-Sawyer College, the three students and Professor Stecker gained as much experience and knowledge during their short stay at the conference as they could by attending as many different sessions as possible. While Professor Stecker found value in the plenary sessions – four major lectures that touched on international issues and featured speakers such as the chief negotiators in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the students each found a unique way to connect to the world outside of Colby-Sawyer through the conference.

Steele notes that the NCHC conference provided her with the valuable opportunity to experience new things and create new ideas. “There was some point during the conference where we all stepped out of our comfort zones and attended events we normally would not have gone to. I'm a Biology major and I participated in a drama class,” she explains, “That's important to do because it makes you more aware of different situations or ideas.”

Stecker finds value in being able to come back each year from the conference with at least one big idea for developing the Wesson Honors Program. In the past, the conference spurred the creation of the Wesson Weekend, a time when honors students have the opportunity to travel to a major city in the United States with professors for an intensive weekend-long course in an urban setting. This year, with the help of the global theme in D.C., Stecker has been able to further develop an idea that she has high hopes of realizing in the coming years: a Wesson Week Abroad.

The students were also able to develop their own ideas from their experience with the NCHC program, which included enthusiasm for developing a funded research program for honors students and starting a mentor program within the honors program to help underclassmen adjust to college life and the honors curriculum.

Exploring Off the Hill

In their little free time, the representatives spent time in the city itself, experiencing diversity outside of themed seminars and lectures. The group visited the Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorials, along with the Washington Monument, noticing that they were surrounded by people of many ethnicities as they explored. The diverse experiences didn't end with Washington-specific travels, though. Professor Stecker encouraged the students to take part in an elegant dinner that none of them had seen the likes of before, and they took her to her first meal at a downtown sports bar.

After the whirlwind experience of participating in the NCHC conference, Professor Stecker and the students returned to New London full of the ideas that had been developed during their stay in D.C. Change is in the air for the Wesson Honors Program as it continues to grow and the possibilities are endless and as diverse as the experiences three students and a professor shared in the global city of our nation's capital.

-Jessica K. McLavey '10

Jessica K. McLavey is an English major and an intern in College Communications at Colby-Sawyer College.