The University of Delaware Honors Program began in 1976 as a year long program for outstanding high school seniors to finish their coursework while simultaneously beginning their college careers.
In 1975, founder, philosophy professor Donald Harward visited colleges and universities across the nation, seeking inspiration for his own Honors program. Most of the schools he visited did not offer year long programs to high-school seniors and focused instead on summer programs. Of the institutions he visited, Harward found Bard College at Simon’s Rock to be the “Paradigm example of early admission experience.” He also drew inspiration from Temple University’s “Hip-Pocket” program and the Honors Program at the University of Colorado, among others. The same year, Harward was appointed director of the University of Delaware program, where he oversaw academic programming and faculty recruitment. Lee Stetson and Stuart Sharkey were also appointed program administrators, with Stetson in charge of recruitment and Sharkey in charge of student affairs.
Harward’s program eventually became known as the “First Year Honors Program”, and represented an amalgamation of the best ideas he had seen in the colleges and universities he visited. From there, the program took on a life of its own. At the time, many students and faculty cited the First Year Honors Program (FHP) as being an innovative and unique experience. The program was housed at Wesley College in Dover, and its participants made up approximately a quarter of the Wesley’s student population. The FHP students had regular interaction with Wesley students on campus. Harward and the Honors administration determined the smaller Wesley environment to be less intimidating for FHP students, and therefore a good stepping-stone before the transition to a larger and busier campus. Further, President E.I. Trabant cited in a letter to Harward, that crowded dormitories and classroom shortages in Newark, along with underused facilities at Wesley, as additional reasons Wesley was the preferred location for the FHP.
There were typically 160-180 FHP students per year. These students had SAT scores of at least 1200 and were in the top 5-10% of their classes. About 90% of this first class was made up of early admits; some were as young as 14. Half of the faculty were hired specifically for the program, while the other half were UD faculty interested in teaching Honors. While many faculty members had to drive or take the bus to Dover each day, going the opposite way, a shuttle bus would take FHP students to UD’s main campus to allow them to use the library and other resources. All FHP students were expected to enroll in a colloquium, a writing course that is still taken by Honors freshmen today. Additionally, FHP students were offered Honors courses in chemistry, biology, the physics of geology, mathematics, philosophy, history, sociology, political science, literature, theater, music, and language. At the completion of the program, most students would enroll at a university, but not necessarily at UD.
In 1979, the Honors Program let its three-year contract with Wesley College expire and began to admit mostly graduated high school seniors for a four-year program at the main campus in Newark, DE. The university administration at the time determined that this move would be beneficial as it would encourage students to continue their studies at UD, rather than using the FHP as a platform to gain acceptance to other universities. The Wesley location also posed problems for FHP students. For one, it often made the transition to the main campus more difficult, being that it took place in the students’ second year. Further, Wesley had limited resources in comparison to the main campus. Moving the program to Newark offered students easier access to UD facilities and other on-campus opportunities. From that point forward, the structure of the Honors program more closely mirrored the four year Honors experience that we see today.
The Evolution of Honors Academics
Becoming a four-year program led to the development of the Honors Degree, which the Faculty Senate approved on May 7, 1979 Students were required to maintain a cumulative GPA of 3.4, take at least 30 credit hours of Honors classes, take a tutorial and a seminar, and write a thesis to earn the degree. There were also written examinations for each major. By 1983, the Honors Degree was available in 12 majors.
One of the defining elements of the Honors Program is the requirement for students to take an Honors colloquia in their freshman year. The colloquia have been an integral part of the program’s offerings since its inception in 1976. Although many other aspects of the program changed between its days at Wesley and its time in Newark, the colloquia remained. Professors across a multitude of different departments, ranging from mathematics to theater, have taught these writing-focused classes.
In the 1990s, an Honors Foreign Language Certificate program was developed with the department of Foreign Languages & Literature. Students who did not have room in their schedules to pursue a full language minor could still earn a transcript designation identifying their pursuit of and interest in a particular language.
The Honors Program continued to grow both in the number of students enrolled and in the number of course offerings. In 2000, a non-thesis track was created for students who wanted to pursue Honors coursework and experiences in areas that did not have as many research opportunities available. The separation of the two degrees also served to highlight the continued Honors experience of upper-division students who did not pursue a thesis and to encourage increased departmental involvement with the program. The non-thesis option became known as the Honors Degree.Students choosing to pursue research and write a thesis could earn an Honors Degree with Distinction. The Degree with Distinction reflected the requirements that had previously been in place for the Honors Degree. Without the requirement of a thesis, the Honors Degree became more accessible to students. As a result, the number of students graduating with Honors Degrees increased rapidly.
At this time, the Honors Program also developed the General Honors Award (GHA) for students to earn midway through their college career. This new award replaced the first year certificate and encouraged students to continue taking Honors coursework to complete their degree programs.
A Growing Program
The Honors Program has grown tremendously in size over the years. The first Honors class was 250 students. Smaller Honors classes along with a residential community of Honors students were both important parts of the program’s identity. Administration also hoped that a smaller class of freshman would make the program attractive for those seeking a more intimate learning environment.
In the 1990s class size rose steadily as more and more students sought admission to the program. In 2000, 432 freshmen were admitted to the Program. Admissions then remained fairly stable at 450 students for nearly a decade. In the 2010s more and more students were accepting admission to the Honors Program, with recent classes coming in near 600 students! As the number of students in the program increased, so did the number of Honors courses and degrees offered.
Each year, the top 100 applicants (roughly) are invited to participate in the Distinguished Scholar competition. These students come to campus for a weekend in March to learn about UD and interview with faculty and staff to determine what scholarship they will be awarded. These significant scholarships are made possible by various grants and foundations, like the Unidel Foundation, which has sponsored the Eugene du Pont Memorial Scholarship since the beginning of the Honors Program. In 1993, the Alison Scholarship was introduced as a scholarship awarded to students interested in the humanities and social sciences. At the time, director Robert Brown stated that one of the ideas behind the program is to prepare students to apply for prestigious scholarships such as the Truman, Rhodes, and Fulbright. These scholars along with others form a community known as the “DiSchos,” (short for Distinguished Scholars) and host faculty dinners, social excursions, and compile a magazine to showcase their research, writings and experiences each year called “Quip.” DiSchos are also allowed greater flexibility in their schedules.
When the Honors Program began, it was unusual to pair an academic program with a residential component. This became a hallmark of the University of Delaware’s Honors Program – a living learning community for scholars.
West Campus was a thriving freshman housing environment in the 1980s. The Honors Program students were located in Dickinson Hall. Because the Program was relatively small and could not fill an entire residence hall, Dickinson was comprised of only 50% Honors students. Honors administration believed that the mixing of Honors and non-Honors students could be beneficial because it would ensure that the Honors students were not isolated from the rest of the students at UD. Many Honors students cited Dickinson’s location far away from many of the main campus buildings as a contributing factor to the feeling of community and shared experiences among Honors students.
Honors peer mentors, known as “Dickinson Fellows,” lived among the freshmen to provide academic guidance and social programming. Sometimes the Dickinson Fellows took their residents off campus. For example, in 1983 and 1984, the Dickinson Fellows and their residents attended a Phillies game, went to the theater in New York City, and visited the Smithsonians in Washington DC. After a few years, a shadow program was developed to allow freshmen to be “Junior Fellows” and learn all about the mentoring position. Since these fellows were all freshmen, they were soon renamed “Freshmen Fellows,” then again renamed “First-Year Fellows,” and are still an active part of the residential community today. In the spring, these “Junior Fellows”—now “First Year Fellows—typically took the lead in programming for the Honors freshmen.
The Russell Complex
In the mid-90s, after 14 years in Dickinson, the Honors freshmen community moved from West Campus to the Russell complex on East Campus. The move was initially made due to Dickinson’s relative inaccessibility for students with disabilities—there were no ramps or elevators and the doorways were relatively small The Russell complex was closer to academic buildings and with large lounges, had a better layout for community programming. In 1998, Dickinson A/B became co-ed; this was not the case in previous Honors housing. The Dickinson Fellows were renamed to match the new location and became Russell Fellows.
When the university introduced the “First-Year Experience,” all freshmen were enrolled in a one-credit course and assigned a peer mentor to help them adjust to college life. Since all Honors freshmen had Russell Fellows as their peer mentors, and were taking freshman Honors courses together, students automatically fulfilled this requirement as part of their living-learning community.
During the time the Program was housed at Wesley College, the Honors students lived together in a residence hall while also attending class together. Once FHP students transitioned to the Newark campus, if they chose to do so, they had the option of Honors housing in the Rodney Complex on West Campus, or in the Belmont House, a self-governed Honors residence that housed about 20 Honors students each year.
After the program’s transition from Wesley to Newark, staff increased their attention to engaging upperclassmen Honors students and offered an optional upper-division Honors housing community. In 1983, Director Gary Reichard proposed that this Honors upper-division housing be located on the north green. The following year, Honors students moved into Brown and Sypherd Halls. The Faculty Fellows program was also introduced that year and entailed certain Honors faculty members “adopting” floors of students living in Brown and Sypherd and participating in programming with them. Today, Honors upper-division students are housed in Sharp and Harter Halls, located across from Brown and Sypherd.
Honors upper-division housing also touts volunteer assistants known as “Senior Fellows.” Like the Fellows in the freshman residence hall, Senior Fellows helped with programming to foster community in the residence halls.In 2020, this group of students was renamed to be the “Honors Community Fellows.” One of the signature programs started by the Honors Community Fellows were Honors Coffeehouses, which helped spur the creation of a cappella groups. This tradition is continued today, but moved to the freshman Honors community. Students living in upper-division Honors housing also participated in music and arts events and fireside seminars with faculty.
Louis L. Redding Hall
In 2013, Honors freshman moved into a brand-new residence hall on East Campus known as Louis L. Redding Hall. Named for a lawyer and civil rights activist who was denied admission to the University of Delaware, it boasts large and small lounges, a community kitchen, several study rooms, as well as large living spaces for its students. Originally, Honors students only occupied a few floors of this building, but in recent years have come to occupy its entirety. The Russell Fellows were permanently renamed the “Munson Fellows,” after Professor Burnaby Munson, who worked with Dr. Harward to found the Honors Program in 1979. Munson was a beloved chemistry professor who often taught Honors students. He also served as the director of the Honors Program in the 1980s.
The Writing Fellows
In 1986, the Honors Program launched the Writing Fellows Program, which was initially run by English professor Jean Pfaelzer. Prior to the start of the Writing Fellows program, colloquium professors had recognized that Honors students needed help with writing, but the professors themselves did not have the time to teach them. The program launched that spring with the course English 367 (now ENGL 316), to train juniors for the fellowship that was to begin in the fall. Upon completing the course, students were then selected to assist professors teaching Honors colloquia.
The Honors Program Staff
The Honors Program office is located at 186 South College Ave., between the Center for Black Culture and the Undergraduate Research office. In the mid-1900s, the building served as a fraternity house and then as the home to the University of Delaware English department. As the program developed, the Honors staff adapted to fit the needs of the students at the time.
For a few years Honors was coupled with undergraduate research and academic enrichment, and the office included an Honors Center at 180 South College Ave., where students could meet outside of office hours for group projects, to use the computer lab, or to hang out. Originally housed on the lower floors of the Rodney Complex, the Honors Center was relocated to 180 South College after experiencing sewage backups in Rodney and no central air conditioning or windows that could be opened.The Honors Center also served as a location for various Honors events and activities, including concerts, art exhibits, discussion groups, short courses, and films. The Honors Center is now the Center for Black Culture.
In 2002, the Honors Program left 180 and 186 South College Ave. and moved to the second and third floors of Elliot Hall, located on Main Street. The program was moved back to 186 South College soon after.
Today, a faculty dean, a deputy dean, six professional staff members, and two administrative assistants work together to create an academic and co-curricular experience for Honors students each year.
Expanding Honors Offerings
Students who wish to pursue prestigious scholarships and fellowships (for example, Marshall, Mitchell, Truman, or Fulbright) have always relied upon Honors staff for advisement. Each year, qualified students spend months preparing applications for these awards and gain institutional support through the Honors Program. The senior associate director and the assistant director then work with each candidate to prepare them for interviews and support them through the entire process.
In addition to scholarly pursuits, Honors students like to have fun! This led to the creation of a full-time co-curricular coordinator who oversees almost all student groups and leadership opportunities within the Honors Program. Students interested in community engagement can join the registered student organization HENS (Honors Engaging in Neighborhood Service) to explore service projects in the local community. In 2014, students interested in engaging in conversations around racial diversity formed Honors Mosaic, a group that works to enhance the experience for students of color in the Honors Program through recruitment, programming and mentoring. Outside of the residential positions (Community Fellows, Munson Fellows, and First-Year Fellows), students can get involved in the Honors Planning Board, a group of students who plan on- and off-campus events such as field trips, current events discussions, and professional development workshops.
Spring Break and Winter Session are exciting times at the University of Delaware, and the Honors Program created opportunities for students to travel abroad during these times. Partnering with the UDaB (University of Delaware Alternative Break) program in 2012, the Honors Program developed a cultural immersion experience to the Dominican Republic for the week of spring break. Approximately 10 students go each year to work with Yspañiola, a literacy education program in one of the poorest areas of the D.R. The Honors-only study abroad trip to Italy happens every other winter, and is led by an Honors faculty member who works with the selected students to develop the curriculum for their five weeks abroad. Students who take advantage of this winter session trip even earn Honors credits. The newest opportunity for Honors students is the blog, 186 South College. All articles are written by students and describe what it’s like to be an Honors student at UD.
The Honors Program becomes the Honors College
In April 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Faculty Senate voted on the formation of the Honors College. That summer, then director Michael Chajes was announced as dean of the newly formed college.