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Honors Program makes the grades

A student in safety goggles works on an assignment with help from her professor.

Alicia Fleming and Natalie Cleaveland made the most of their undergraduate years at the University of North Florida and it landed them both in elite doctoral programs — at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and at the University of Michigan, respectively.


But they could not have done it without the Honors Program at the University of North Florida.


“Honors has helped me be more well-rounded and not just a scientist,” Cleaveland, a chemistry major and Jacksonville native, said. “We had a great deal of interdisciplinary work. Honors classes give you a different perspective and experience than you would have just taking regular sections of classes.”


The Honors Program at UNF is coming into its own as one of the premier academic programs at the University. With smaller classes, more in-depth analysis of topics and almost one-on-one instruction, the Honors Program really gives students a depth and breadth of knowledge in a subject area that is hard to obtain in a regular section of the same class. Professors are able to delve deeper, allow for greater discussion and more independent study and thought in Honors classes, thus creating a different learning process and developing sharper critical thinking skills.


“Honors classes are not harder,” Fleming, a biology major from Shelbyville, Ky., said. “They are just more intense. You work differently and more in-depth in your Honors classes. You are able to go deeper into the subject because the classes are smaller and you have more time with the professors. The professors expect more of you.”


Dr. Jeffrey Michelman, associate dean of Undergraduate Studies and director of the Honors Program, said that is really the intent of the program. “We want to give Honors students a different learning experience in the classroom. We want them to think critically. We want them to come at a subject from all sides, while engaging with one another and their professors.”


That was certainly Cleaveland’s experience in the program. “A few of my science classes were in the Honors Program,” she said. “The class size was smaller and that helped so much. I had more one-on-one time with the professor. I was also able to develop my leadership skills and hone some of my professional skills that I otherwise may not have had the opportunity to do in other sections or without the Honors Program.”


The Honors Program at UNF is an interdisciplinary program designed for high-achieving students that emphasizes active learning in small classes. There are opportunities for students to fulfill general education requirements through small, focused, experiential classes, as well as interdisciplinary elective classes, classes that include a travel component and upper-level research experiences within some majors. The program emphasizes an interdisciplinary perspective, service-leadership, global awareness and critical thinking in the context of a tight-knit community of faculty, staff and students.


UNF’s own research and several national studies have determined that an honors program can impact both retention and graduation rates at an institution. That is certainly the case at UNF and with both Fleming and Cleaveland.


“I can’t imagine my UNF experience without the Honors Program,” Cleaveland said. “I was able to get to know my professors really well and I think Honors created that atmosphere. One of my first professors was Dr. Lucy Croft and I have stayed in contact with her throughout my four years here. Because of my experience with her, I wanted to do that with my other professors, too. I wanted that same level of academic interaction with them.”


Dr. Jeffrey Coker, dean of Undergraduate Studies, said that the Honors Program is an important component of UNF’s retention efforts because it is a microcosm of the whole University. The successes in the Honors Program — the intentional relationship building with faculty and staff, the connectivity with the University, the bridges that are built to resources and the overall feeling of well-being — can be studied and then transferred to the rest of the institution.


“The Honors Program really frames the high-achieving student’s undergraduate experience,” Coker said. “We want the students to be challenged, to stretch and grow, but to also make connections at the institution that will be sustained throughout their four years with us. We want to do the same for students who are not in the Honors Program, as well.”


Cleaveland and Fleming certainly made connections while on campus. Both of them parlayed mentorships in the classroom and through internships into their post-UNF careers.


 “When I was researching Michigan, I really didn’t know much about the school,” Cleaveland said. “I talked to Dr. Radha Pyati, chair of the Chemistry Department, about it. She told me it was a great school and that I should seriously consider it. I knew I wanted to do academic research and that is what Michigan is known for — it became clear that Michigan was the school of choice for me.”


Fleming’s road to Mayo was a little less direct. Originally, she was studying biology in hopes of going to medical school. Then, in her senior year, after preparing for the medical school entrance exam (MCAT) and working in an emergency room, she said she decided she really wanted to go the academic route instead.


“I had already taken the MCAT twice and in August of my senior year, after really thinking about what path I wanted to take, I decided I wanted to go to grad school instead,” Fleming said. “One reason that I picked Mayo was because it had the clinic as well as the research area. They have samples from actual patients that we are privileged to have access to and study. The research we do can translate over quickly to the clinic and can be put into motion.”


Both women will spend the next five years working on their doctoral degrees. The first two years will be largely spent in the classroom, with the next three research-based. They both said they feel incredibly fortunate to have landed in the programs they have and credit UNF with helping them get there.


“I did an internship with Mayo Clinic as an undergraduate,” she said. “At a Mayo internship, you can do research for a  semester or a year. After my internship was done, my boss hired me and I worked there for one day a week. Then I applied for their graduate program and I got it. I got my foot in the door at the Mayo Clinic because of UNF. I have been pushed to do my best in all my classes and pushed to succeed.”


The two roommates met during their freshman year and became friends. They quickly discovered they both had a strong academic drive that was mirrored in one another and fostered in the Honors Program and by their professors. 


They developed a friendship through the Honors Program and their classes. Fleming and Cleaveland had a mutual friend in the Honors Colloquium, the class all Honors students take their first semester in the program.


“We didn’t actually get to know each other until the spring semester,” Cleaveland said. “Everyone else was going home for the summer and we just said, ‘Hey, let’s be friends’ and that is how we got to be friends. We had a lot of fun summer experiences while we were taking classes together.”


Becoming roommates was a natural progression for the two science-based majors. They both understood the pressures that came with the demanding class load and schedule, and they often turned to one another for support and encouragement.


“It was just easier to live with someone who was a science major,” Cleaveland said. “She understood how difficult my classes were and what I needed to do to be successful in them, just as I understood what she needed to do. We were there for each other. Even though we were not in the same major, it helped that we were in the same field.”


Both women credit Michelman with helping them learn how to network, both through the Honors Program and Rotaract, a Coggin College of Business club that is sponsored by Oceanside Rotary. The club is service-based and provides leadership opportunities for students in the community, as well as on campus.


“We both got involved in Rotaract through Dr. Michelman,” Cleaveland said. “There is a pretty significant tie between Rotaract and the Honors Program because they tend to do projects that Honors students like to do and, of course, Dr. Michelman is a huge part of it.”


Fleming said that Rotaract helped her develop leadership skills and learn to interact professionally with people.


The Honors Program gives students many opportunities to grow and develop. Students can look at the world through a lens that is not clouded or biased, but rather wide open and clear. They are encouraged to try on new ways of thinking and to ask questions or challenge belief systems.


“We are proud of the direction in which the Honors Program is going under Dr. Michelman’s leadership,” said Dr. Earle C. Traynham, interim provost. “As the academic profile continues to grow, more and more demand will be placed on the Honors Program to challenge the intellects of our students. Dr. Michelman is just the person to do that and move the program forward.”


Cleaveland has no complaints with her experience with the program. “I know that the education I have received at UNF is just as important and as thorough as at any other state school,” Cleaveland said. “The interaction I had with the professors through the Honors Program made it so. It made the learning easier and better. I feel that I have gained more skills and that I have had opportunities that I would not have had at many other universities.”