Fostering a Community of Academic Excellence at MU through the Honors Program
By: Macy Elizabeth Pope 


Marymount University has an academic tradition that now spans 70 years. In 2003, the Marymount Honors Program was started at the University to encourage students to seek the answers to tough questions, engage with their hard-working peers, and foster a community of academic integrity and fervor. But how has the program changed, and what do students and faculty see for the future of it?

For many students who go to Marymount University in Arlington, VA, academics are not the only thing to worry about. Many work extra jobs, have extracurricular activities, play sports, and have families to attend to. Therefore, the decision to join what seems like an extremely rigorous academic program on campus with a strict GPA requirement and 24 honors credit hours tacked onto an already busy workload may seem like the impossible. However, students in the program are trying to change that narrative. Upon asking why they pursued admission to the program, here are the answers of two students.

Sophomore Hanna Gralinski chuckled, stating, “I like being in the honors program… When people hear I’m in the honors program they’re like ‘Oh, you’re actually smart,’ like it’s a way to prove myself to other people.” For Gralinski, that means not only being an economics major and business minor, a “big” for a younger honors student, and an active member of the Marymount community, but also a dedicated and curious individual who seeks to challenge herself in a demanding and prestigious program.

For an Honors Student Organization (HSO) leader, Ava Gonzalez, the program is the reason for her being at Marymount. “It was my admission to the honors program that tilted my decision to come to Marymount, because being a part of an honors program… is pretty important in terms of my resume when it comes time to graduate.” Gonzalez is a very involved individual at Marymount, who still considers her duties to the honors program her top priority.

Audio from interview courtesy of Ava Gonzalez

These students both actively expressed their love for the program that forces them to work harder and smarter. Even though the workload and social life of the program are quite taxing at times, it was communicated by both Gralinski and Gonzalez that the honors program has been one of the highlights of their time here at Marymount thus far.

The Marymount University Honors Program was started in 2003 to cultivate an appreciation for the well-rounded liberal arts education that Marymount is known for. Using independent study tutorials, Socratic seminar-style classes, and service projects, the honors program hones students’ skills in areas that help them glean the most from their education. Head advisor of the honors program and psychology professor Dr. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman said, “Many students seek out the honors program because they want the additional challenge, they like the fact that in honors classes, specifically in the tutorials, they get to take a bit more ownership with what it is they are learning… that curiosity, the drive, the interest in being challenged… it’s heightened in honors students.”

The tutorials Lopresti-Goodman mentioned are one-on-one study programs in a specific area that students do with a professor that specialize in their tutorial topic. There are four levels of tutorial– 200, 300, 399, and 400, respectively. The 200 and 300 level tutorials’ written requirements consist of a thesis, an annotated bibliography of at least eight sources, and finally a 5-page minimum paper that explains the research they conducted with their professor throughout the semester. In addition to this, the student must meet with the professor for one hour at least 8 times in a semester to talk about their research and the direction of the tutorial.

More complex tutorials are at the 399 and the 400 level. The 399 tutorial is typically taken the second semester of their junior year, where the student collaborates with another specialized professor to begin a formulation of their senior honors thesis. Upperclassmen students will write at least a 15-page paper with 10 scholarly sources. Finally, in the 400 tutorial, or senior thesis tutorial, honors students are required to present a thesis of their work that they have honed from the beginning of their 300-level tutorial. It is meant to be the culmination of an honors student’s work at Marymount University.

In addition to the tutorials, first semester freshman are required to take their discovery course. The discovery course for the honors program is called “The Quest.” The class’ topic varies year to year, but the purpose of the course is to acclimate new students to the amount of writing and critical thinking that they will engage in during their time in the honors program. Taught by Dr. Lopresti-Goodman, the discovery course also acquaints students with one another. When talking about her experience in the freshman year discovery course, Gralinski said, “All my closest friends [came] from the honors program, which I was not expecting!”

From there, Honors students are required to take nine more honors seminar credit hours, which the students can take in a variety of subjects that change semester to semester. This flexibility is a big perk of the program, since the honors program has students from all different disciplines who are trying to fulfill their liberal arts core requirements, major/minor requirements, and honors requirements. Even though this all seems like a lot of work for the students, both Gralinski and Gonzalez expressed their own excitement about being challenged and getting to take charge of their own education. When asked about her opinion of tutorials, Gonzalez said, “In the spirit of learning and academia… it’s a really important thing to allow students to take charge.”

Of course, freshman admission to the program is contingent on several things: one, the high school GPA must be above a 3.5, an ACT composite score must be a 26 of higher and/or SAT composite score must be at a 1200 or higher, and applicants must demonstrate an enthusiasm for reading, research, and writing. This ensures that high school students entering into the honors program have demonstrated their work ethic in advance, and will have a strong chance in succeeding in the honors program from freshman year forward, and will hopefully decrease their chances of ending up on academic probation if their honors GPA drops below a 3.50.

Second-semester freshmen as well as sophomore students and transfer students are also invited to apply to the program. In this case, students need to talk to the Honors department head to see if it is feasible or not to complete the honors program requirements in a timely fashion before the student’s expected graduation date. However, Lopresti-Goodman is adamant that people who want to apply to the honors program after being at Marymount for a spell can still be incredibly successful in the program. She said, “If [a student] can get here and prove themselves in the classroom, and a Marymount professor can see that… then we don’t look at their high school scores,” even if the student does have to play “catch up” with the program requirements.

The program requirements would intimidate anyone upon first glance, but there are specific perks that offset some of the daunting requirements. Students have access to an honors lounge accessible by key card only, where there is free printing available, as well as computers. There is study abroad opportunities specific to the honors program, namely the Oxford study abroad program, that the Center for Global Education provides scholarship to honors students for. They also have priority registration for classes each semester, a two credit overload above the standard 18 credit course load, and a tuition scholarship.

Another very important part of the honors program is the social culture that is created around the students during their time together. As the students are all motivated and have a combined passion for learning, it is easy to see why they tend to gravitate towards staying inside their cohort. As mentioned earlier, Gralinski feels that her closest friends at Marymount have been made because of the honors program. There are also many different social and group programs that seek to bring peers together to better enrich their lives while at Marymount.

Since it is apparent that the honors program makes up a large portion of the academic community on campus, the faculty at MU have taken notice of the benefits of the honors program. Dr. Megan McFarlane, an assistant professor of communication who has worked with honors students before in tutorials and now considers herself an advocate for the honors program, thinks that the program is beneficial for the academic culture of Marymount. “The program brings students to Marymount,” she said. “We enjoy working with students… it doesn’t feel like work.” McFarlane also stated that students are deserving of the perks they are given, explaining that they are needed in order to work out schedules appropriately to fit in all the necessary requirements.

The program seems to have a generally positive review from students and professors alike, and support for the program from faculty and administration. However, sometimes things may seem to take priority over the program. Lopresti-Goodman mentioned, “There are always competing interests [the administration] has to balance.” While these competing interests do not seem to be due to a negative view of the program, this trend has still been noticed by students in the program. “Honestly I don’t think we get enough credit, because I think athletes get a lot of recognition at this school, and if Marymount wants to be better and improve the academic I think that the honors program should receive more praise for what we’re doing,” commented Gralinski.

Marymount’s history of a liberal arts educational system led to the eventual formation of the honors program as a way to encourage inquisitive students to protect and express their love of learning, and create a community around intellectual exploration. The rigorous curriculum may intimidate some students, but the quality time and friendships with peers and the excellent benefits seek to counteract some of those apprehensions. While the program seems to be a positive and hopeful institution according to the students, faculty, and advisor herself, there are also possible areas in which the program could improve. The future of the program seems bright– Lopresti-Goodman projects hopefully that by next spring semester there will be 100 students in the honors program. This participation and interest in the honors program, however, comes from all the students of Marymount; therefore, only time can tell how happy students, faculty, and administration will be with the honors program as it continues to grow.

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