Prior to the start of the 1986-87 academic year, English professor Jerry McNamara was asked to start an honors program for “students who expressed a desire to pursue their academics beyond what the normal Monmouth College curriculum provides.”
Approximately two dozen students attended a meeting in the college library, where the structure of the program was presented.
“It was all extra,” said McNamara, who retired in 1995. “The students got no credit toward graduation, there was no budget for it and there was no release time for faculty. You were still expected to teach your full course load, in addition to the honors course.”
Despite that, he said, “The students were eager, and they had a certain pride in being involved.”
Perhaps none more so than Brad Nahrstadt ’89, who said he recalls some of the classes and experiences as if they occurred yesterday. Now an attorney and partner at the law firm of Williams Montgomery & John in Chicago, Nahrstadt is also a member of the college’s board of trustees.
“It was designed to be a four-year program, but we started it as sophomores,” said Nahrstadt, adding “It was a lot of extra work.”
That, coupled with the fact that the students were not receiving academic credit for the courses, caused several classmates to eventually leave the program.
By the time his class reached its senior year, just four students remained – Nahrstadt, Jon Hauser, Mary Larsen and Karen Owrey.
The group took several courses together, and Nahrstadt was able to name those classmates off the top of the head nearly a quarter of a century later.
“Amazingly, I remember a lot,” said Nahrstadt of the program. “There were a number of great classes.”
One he recalled was an in-depth study of Thomas Mann’s novel “Buddenbrooks.” Although the book was “a fascinating read,” the professor was even more noteworthy – it was none other than the Monmouth College president at the time, Bruce Haywood.
“I remember that he used green ink to grade my final paper, and there was green ink all over that thing,” Nahrstadt said. “But with all that was going on at the college at the time, I was impressed that he spent that much time on my paper. I learned a lot from his comments. I took them to heart and applied them to other classes.”
As for his final project, Nahrstadt said, “I remember it like it was yesterday. My mom even came down for it. It was a very nerve-wracking experience, as I was not one for public speaking at the time. It wasn’t necessarily a life-changing moment for me, but it flipped a switch and was a huge confidence booster. In the last five years, I’ve done more than 100 presentations, sometimes in front of 400 or 500 people. That Distinction Program presentation was the first time I’d had an opportunity to do that.”
The Distinction Program of that era focused on the notion of change and continuity. For his final project, Nahrstadt compared and contrasted folk songs and movies of the 1930s and 1960s. The other three students discussed the American frontier, feminism and science, and the effects of mass media on society.
“That program, at least in part, is responsible for my lifelong interest in learning,” said Nahrstadt. “It piqued my curiosity and made me realize you should study and think about other things outside of your major. It exposed me to things I wouldn’t have known about and to experiences I wouldn’t have had.”
David Suda is credited for starting the Honors Program “as we presently know it.” That came in 1990, said Suda, a professor in MC’s philosophy and religious studies department.
Largely because it didn’t offer students academic credit, “the Distinction Program died a natural death,” he said. “But President Haywood was still very eager to have an honors program on campus.”
The new version began with an introductory interdisciplinary course, then included a series of other courses that would satisfy all of the college’s general education requirements, such as its science and “beauty and meaning” components.
“That version got off the ground,” said Suda, but due to ensuing faculty cutbacks, it also had a short life. The program laid dormant for two or three years in the mid-1990s, but was revived under the presidency of Sue Huseman, with Suda again in charge.
“Revisions were submitted, and it was not as demanding on faculty resources,” said Suda. “The introductory course stayed in, and the next grouping of rubrics was designed to rotate among faculty, which is how it remains today. It was much more streamlined.”
From the faculty’s perspective, Suda said the Honors Program has allowed professors to “test” courses. “After some modifications, they might show up in the general curriculum,” he said. Some are offered only as Honors Program courses, including one Suda created on Nobel Laureates in literature.
In general, he said, “The Honors Program provides an avenue for students who are highly motivated. They not only take the ball and run with it, they come up with new plays.”
Suda’s decade in charge ended around the time of Y2K, setting the stage for Watson. Several revisions were made to the curriculum under his watch, and there have also been a few new developments, he said.
In the past, students could only become part of the program after showing strong abilities in “Introduction to Liberal Arts” (ILA), the common course that all freshmen take in their fall semester. Recently, incoming freshmen have been accepted into the program during their final semester of high school on the basis of their application materials and their performance at on-campus interviews with Watson and faculty colleague Hannah Schell.
Watson said that process has produced exceptional yields for the admission program. Of the 20 to 22 students interviewed each spring, at least 15 have matriculated each fall, which Watson called “way beyond the going rate.”
He explained that incorporating the college’s new Midwest Scholars Award – a renewable $25,000 annual merit-based scholarship – was a logical next step in the history of the Honors Program.
“This seems like a strategic time to marry these high-end recruitment initiatives – a well-established, older program and this new merit scholarship.”
Watson called the modern Honors Program “the continuation of ILA at a fairly ambitious intellectual level. It not only has a strong interdisciplinary connection, but it provides the students with a coterie – a group of people – who they can take classes with and talk to about important issues for their next three or four years.”
It also provides the students with a plan, he explained.
“Students are required to write two pathway essays – two intellectual trajectory essays,” said Watson. “They are asked to talk to people on campus about what they imagine they might do in their four years at Monmouth, and then write an essay about that, as well as one on what service and leadership roles they anticipate having. There’s certainly a level of intentionality to the program, and we ask the students to really put some thought into it as they map their futures.”
The students’ capstone experience is a project which “typically blends two or three academic disciplines,” said Watson. The projects have covered a wide range of subjects, including:
- “When Physics and Music Intertwine”
- “Building a Sustainable Monmouth College”
- “The Mathematics of Combat”
- “Born or Made: A Scientific Exploration of Sexual Orientation” and
- “Cosmology and Christianity”
“Our Honors Program graduates often describe their projects on job interviews or use them on graduate school applications,” said Watson.
“The Honors Program is strong today because of the consistent good work that Craig has put into it,” said Suda. “He has revised the curriculum and provided insightful leadership, and I’m sure that will continue under the new coordinator, Marsha Dopheide.”