Further changes coming to honors housing, programming

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Caela Go | Staff Photographer

The Honors College in the Cathedral of Learning.

By Jessica Steinberg, Staff Writer

The University Honors College had a busy year in 2019, welcoming a new acting dean, moving first-year Honors Housing from one side of Sutherland Hall to another and adding a new honors joint-degree program.

Now that these changes have settled into place, the UHC has announced plans to introduce “scholar communities” and to continue to adjust its Honors Housing offerings.

UHC administrators moved the first-year housing program at the start of this academic year from Sutherland Hall’s west wing to the smaller east wing, as it rolled out a new admissions-based joint-degree program for incoming first-year students. The academic program required first-year students in the program to live in Honors Housing.

Parker Werns, the Honors Housing manager, said the transition was fairly straightforward, and honors students still have access to West’s new common areas.

“Sutherland just went through a bunch of really great renovations,” Werns said. “They got a kitchen and all these new lounge spaces. It ended up being really great because they still have access to all those nice spaces.” 

Quincy Bayer, a first-year engineering major in the honors joint-degree program, said he appreciates the opportunities for community that Honors Housing offers.

“The main reason I joined Pitt Honors is for being with people who are academically driven — like-minded people,” Bayer said. “I got more interested in the other programs later on, but it was mostly housing, building a community, the connections.”

But while some students view Honors Housing as a beneficial part of the joint-degree program, other students did not want to be restricted to living in Honors Housing. In response to this feedback, Acting Dean Audrey Murrell said the UHC will remove the requirement next academic year that first-year honors students live in the Honors Housing living learning community.

“They wanted more flexibility for engineering students to live in the engineering LLC or business students to live in the business LLC,” Murrell said. “Based on that feedback, we relaxed that as a requirement.”

In order to improve the Honors Housing experience, the UHC will move upperclassmen Honors Housing from the second and third floors of Irvis Hall to Brackenridge Hall next academic year, according to Werns.

“It’s going to be much closer to the Cathedral and much closer to the Quad, and hopefully it’s going to be a better experience for students so they don’t have to be trekking up to Irvis,” Werns said.

Priority access to Honors Housing is one of the benefits of the new joint-degree program, which requires students to complete 24 credits, with 18 through honors classes and six through experiential credits of research, internships, co-ops or study abroad. In addition to Honors Housing, participation in the program includes perks, such as priority access to class registration and an assigned honors scholar-mentor.

According to Murrell, if the requirements are met, graduating students will receive a diploma that is jointly conferred by their academic college as well as the UHC.

“Your diploma would say ‘Bachelors of Arts with Honors’ or ‘Bachelors of Science and Business Administration with Honors.’ It’s on your actual diploma,” Murrell said.

Priya Shah, a sophomore neuroscience and political science major, said she thinks the new joint-degree program is a positive change for the UHC. 

“While it does promote a certain level of exclusivity, I do think it’s a good addition and I wish it was something I had when I was a freshman,” Shah, an Honors Housing resident, said. “I know a lot of the freshmen get to schedule much earlier, which would have been nice.”

For students looking for less of a commitment, the UHC also rolled out an honors distinction program this academic year, which has smaller credit and GPA requirements than the joint-degree program. The distinction program awards an honors designation on the student’s transcript, but not their diploma.

With the addition of the new programs to the intensive Bachelor of Philosophy degree program, the UHC now offers three credential programs with varying levels of commitment. But Murrell said the UHC is open to all Pitt students — any student can apply for the BPhil, the Brackenridge Fellowship, the joint-degree program, the honors distinction, attend Community Cafe events or take University honors courses.

“We don’t have a membership model,” Murrell said. “Membership makes people think that if you are not in the joint-degree program that you can’t apply for Brackenridge or that you can’t, at some point as a sophomore or junior, decide to do a Bachelor of Philosophy, and that’s actually not accurate.”

With the housing changes and the programming additions going well, Murrell said the UHC is preparing to launch a series of “scholar communities.” According to Murrell, the scholar communities are an opportunity for students who are interested in research to participate in an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty focused on a particular topic, such as food insecurity.

“It’s a perfect way to understand the notion of crossing boundaries,” Murrell said. “It’s a place where all different kinds of scholarship and the different types of disciplines can come together and collaborate toward solutions.”

According to Murrell, the inaugural scholar community will look at food through the lenses of waste, insecurity, policy, health and economics, with the help of Food21, a non-profit organization with expertise in food sustainability efforts. As part of the scholar community, Amanda Little, a journalist and Vanderbilt University professor with an interest in sustainability and food, will speak at Pitt’s campus this year.

In addition to the scholar communities, Murrell said the UHC will add two new staff positions, a director of experiential and global programs and a program manager. The UHC is also assembling an alumni board to provide more opportunities for UHC alumni to engage with current students.

Murrell said all of the changes underway on floors 35 and 36 of the Cathedral of Learning are intended to empower students with advanced academic opportunities.

“It’s just amazing to me, some of the research projects that students are doing, some of the original things that they are creating in all different kinds of disciplines with all different kinds of project work,” Murrell said.

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