BYU Honors Program introduces unique ways of learning, challenges for students

A student climbs the steps of the Maeser Building, the home of the BYU Honors Program. The Honors Program introduces both unique ways of learning as well as some challenges for students. (Payton Pingree)

BYU’s Honors Program is a unique experience for students because of its open-enrollment format and focus on interdisciplinary learning. However, some students say they encountered unforeseen challenges during their time in the program.

The program’s mission, as outlined on its website, is to “develop student-scholars from across the university who will become broad thinkers, creative problem solvers and influential leaders by cultivating skills of inquiry, interdisciplinary thinking, community of scholars and academic excellence.”

In addition to completing leadership experience, personal essays and theses, students in the program are required to complete 22.5 credits, including three Unexpected Connections courses. These courses combine two general education requirements into one class, mixing different disciplines to create unique learning opportunities, team-taught by two professors.

Insights from student advisors

There are currently five student advisors in the Honors Advisement Center. Each advisor is a student in the program and works to assist others in the program. James Hecht and Rachel Olsen are two of these advisors and offered their insights into the challenges and rewards found in the Honors Program.

“While the Unexpected Connections courses do function to cover GE requirements, they feel less like just requirements to get out of the way and more an exploration of why subjects, even those outside of your own major, can be valuable to know and study,” Hecht said.

Olsen appreciates the Honors Program’s personalized learning style.

“The classes are very specific about specific questions, which is unexpected and fun. They definitely are geared toward personal growth and to change your perspective on things,” Olsen said. “You’re in a group of about 40-50 students. So you get really hands-on, personal, discussion-based learning. 

As student advisors, Hecht and Olsen are responsible for helping students stay on track within the program, checking in to ensure they are completing their requirements in good time. They work with students and see first-hand where they tend to thrive and struggle.

“While it is extremely valuable to learn the modes of thought in those disciplines, it can be hard to predict how difficult the practices will be in a given discipline that is not your own,” Hecht said.

Hecht added that students also find difficulty planning for and writing their thesis. He explained he advises his students to start during their sophomore or junior years so it does not sneak up on them. 

“The thesis is difficult and very much unlike class-work students generally do — it is research and writing to a degree most BYU students will not experience in their undergrad,” Hecht said. “If a student hasn’t been planning for their thesis in the previous years, it is difficult to meet the deadlines in their last year.”

“I think what may make a particular Honors Program class hard is if it really focuses heavily on a discipline that the student isn’t familiar with,” Olsen said. “Because different professors are teaching these classes, sometimes the level of difficulty isn’t always consistent.”

Olsen explained that these features of the program also provide valuable learning experiences, despite circumstances that might be new for students. Honors Program participants are able to synthesize disciplines together to answer questions and be taught by professors of diverse fields.

Both Olsen and Hecht emphasized the importance of good planning and hard work if a student wants a successful and fulfilling Honors Program experience.

Student experiences

While advisors urge all students to consider the Honors Program, some students have found that it is not the best option for their personal academic goals.

Vanessa Machado just finished her junior year as an information systems major. She dropped out of the Honors Program as an accounting major, after two years of participating.

Machado explained that it was not necessarily the course load that steered her away from the program, but the focus of some of the classes. She ended up dropping Honors 320 when she left the program. She said she did not enjoy the focus on research and struggled with finding how to create a thesis project with her major. 

“That’s just not really something I enjoy at all,” Machado said. “So that’s part of why I ended up dropping out, because of those classes. I felt like, you know, I’m never going to use this, there’s not really a point to do it for me personally.”

Machado added that she still was able to have positive experiences throughout her time in the Honors Program.

“What they’re teaching you is valuable,” she said. “It just wasn’t necessarily something that I wanted to continue with that I felt like I would need when I graduated.”

Connor Ohran, a mechanical engineering major who just completed his second semester at BYU in the Honors Program, discussed how he is also seriously considering dropping out of the program. 

Ohran initially joined the program because of friends who were taking the intro class, and because of his background with honors classes in high school. He explained juggling the challenging classes in the Honors Program along with the difficult classes in his major is not an easy process. 

“Looking at the length of my major, mechanical engineering has a lot of credit hours that are required, and adding honors on top of that is going to be pretty difficult,” Ohran said. “And I think it’d be awesome to have a thesis that I could write and publish, I just am not sure I’d be able to fit that in with an already rigorous major.”

When asked what he wishes he could change about the program, Ohran mentioned if some of the classes more easily tied into his major, that would be helpful.

“I wish there was another track of the Honors Program that was more applied, rather than research-based,” Machado said. “Because I feel like if there had been something that was more, ‘apply what you learned instead of just make up questions and research them,’ maybe I would have stayed with it.”

This graph shows the breakdown of students in the Honors Program by college. The BYU Honors Program is open-enrollment and available for students in any major to join. (BYU Honors Program)

Advice from an advisement supervisor

Vika Filimoeatu is the Honors Program advisement supervisor and has been working at BYU since 2015.

Filimoeatu explained one of the biggest challenges students face in the Honors Program is adjusting to the style of writing within the program. 

“This writing is so different than any writing they’ve done,” she said. “You find a topic, you do research, there’s consultation with a TA and instructors.”

She mentioned that students who already struggle with writing might struggle a bit more in the Honors Program. However, professors, advisors and teaching assistants are available as resources for all students.

Echoing Olsen and Hecht’s remarks, Filimoeatu highlighted that timing and planning are pivotal in a student’s Honors Program experience.

“The number one reason I would say why students drop the program is they’re not planning well enough,” Filimoeatu said. “It’s all about time-management.”

The total credits required for the Honors Program is similar to a minor at BYU, but courses can also lighten the load of general education course requirements. 

Filimoeatu urged freshmen to take the 0.5 credit introduction class, HONRS 110, to get an idea for what the program requires and offers students. 

She also shared that the program is meant for any and all BYU students. 

“It’s open enrollment. It’s not just for smart kids, or a 4.0 GPA or a high SAT, ACT score. It’s for all students,” Filimoeatu said. If you want more out of your education, then this is the place for you.”

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