NEH grant to fund redesigned Honors program

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May 28, 2019


The Honors Program NEH Humanities Connection Grant group includes (seated, L to R) Beth Wengler, Pam Bacon, Erica Stonestreet, Emily Esch, (standing, L to R) Margrette Newhouse, Bill Lamberts, Adia Zeman and Whitney Court. Not pictured are Bret Benesh and Matt Lindstrom.

The College of Saint Benedict (CSB) and Saint John’s University (SJU) have had an Honors program for decades. But you’d have had a tough time distinguishing it from anyone else’s Honors program. 

With the development of the new Integrations curriculum, the time seemed right to amp up the Honors component for the fall 2020 academic year. 

“We took the opportunity of the development of the new curriculum to rethink it,” said Honors Program Associate Director Emily Esch. “And so we thought about, how can we better serve these students – in a way that fits with our mission? We hadn’t really updated the mission of our Honors program since the ’80s, when it was founded. And our student body has changed a lot. The world has changed a lot.” 

To help fund the design and implementation of the changes, CSB has been awarded a highly competitive grant* for $35,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The proposal for that grant was written by Esch and Honors Program Director Beth Wengler. The grant will run from May 1, 2019, through May 1, 2020. 

The grant application, titled Humanities in Action, proposes a new CSB/SJU Honors program that will be built on three pillars. First, it will include an integrated curriculum of five honors seminars on the theme of creating community. Second, it will employ a social change model of leadership, intended to develop leadership competence and create socially responsible change. And finally, the program will involve experiential learning, developing proposals and strategies for addressing community-identified concerns. 

The new program will be part of a larger, concentrated effort to create a robust CSB/SJU Honors “eco-system.” That context will include undergraduate research, an all-college thesis program and competitive fellowships. 

NEH logo

That NEH grant program is considered very selective. This year NEH received 139 proposals by the Oct. 17, 2018, deadline, of which 19 were funded. According to the NEH, knowledgeable persons outside NEH read each application and advise the agency on its merits. Those external reviewers were impressed with the CSB proposal. As one panelist put it in anonymous comments, “this is a very exciting, intellectually challenging and robust approach to reimagining the way we teach the humanities.” 

After that review, NEH staff members comment on matters of fact or on significant issues and then make recommendations to the National Council on Humanities. The National Council advises the NEH chairman on grants. Then the chairman takes into account the advice provided and, by law, makes all funding decisions. 

“We’ve done a lot of the planning already,” said Wengler, who is also an associate professor in the CSB/SJU History Department. “What we have to do now is develop those courses and incorporate an experiential component. There’s a lot of inter-disciplinary work to be done and this grant will primarily fund that.” 

While Wengler confirms the new program will be, like all Honors programs, for high-achieving students, Esch is quick to clarify that “these students are going to go on to be the leaders in their communities, their churches, their businesses. … And we think we can better prepare them for those roles they’ll be playing after graduation.”

One distinct difference in this new program is that it will be cohort-based. Students will progress through their four years with a group of fellow high-achieving students. 

A second change will be in the entry process. “We’re thinking about diversity here, of all sorts,” said Esch, who also serves as an associate professor in the CSB/SJU Philosophy Department. “So we want to make it more inclusive. And we realize that to do that we have to move away from the objective ACT score that we use as the cutoff now and think more about having people apply and address the things we want to see from them once they’re in the program.” 

The third fundamental difference in the new program will be its focus. “We want to think about who we are at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s,” Wengler said. “We want to develop a program that connects to our broader Benedictine mission – commitment to community, to the common good, to scholarship and its dissemination. … We want to educate these students and get them started doing this work while they’re in college so that they’ll carry it on.” 

*Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the new Honors program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.