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Hicks gift provides true Honors experience for top-flight Ospreys

Students from the Hicks Honors College in a lab

Ann Hicks sees a little bit of herself in every honors student who passes through the University of North Florida and goes on to become an Osprey alum.

She admires their intellectual curiosity. They view in-depth class conversations with excitement — not apprehension — much like how she was as an undergrad. She shares their drive to give back to those less fortunate.

“They’re in a position — and at a school — where they can do great things,” Hicks said. “I hope that I’m able to give them the nudge to keep them moving forward, moving toward reaching their goals.”

Her characteristically humble nature belies the fact that Ann and her husband, David, have been two of the University’s most important supporters for decades. Their most recent contribution, a $7 million gift, formed the University’s sixth academic college, an intellectual haven for UNF’s highest-achieving students. Formerly known as the Honors Program, the new Hicks Honors College will expand the minds and transform the lives of UNF’s top-flight scholars by offering classes with exceptionally accomplished faculty engaged in experiential, high-impact learning in the greater Northeast Florida community.

“UNF is the greatest asset we have in Jacksonville,” she said. “We care deeply about the mission. That’s why we were thinking about how we could best utilize our resources to help the University stay competitive in the national education world. All the best universities have honors colleges, and UNF can now be counted among that group and continue to recruit the best and brightest that the region — and beyond — has to offer.”

During a ceremony in October to christen the new College, President John A. Delaney — surrounded by two dozen Honors students sporting the new College’s T-shirts — touched on the fact that the gift comes at a particularly important time for UNF.

“The fall freshman class is the smartest ever at UNF with an average high school GPA of 4.02,” he said. “The Hicks Honors College will provide high-achieving students with a transformative, four-year experience. The Hicks Honors College will prepare these students for a lifetime of leadership.”

Henok Daniel, a sophomore Honors student majoring in chemistry, has enjoyed his academic experience and looks forward to the next phase of Honors instruction at UNF.

“The Honors faculty has done such a great job in providing a diverse academic environment,” said Daniel, who was excited to hear about the new investment in the program.

He thinks having the distinction of a College may inspire more students to join. Prior to the announcement, about 580 students were registered in the Honors Program. Daniel believes becoming a College widens the appeal to students to take the Honors route.

“I think new students at UNF may consider Honors in the future,” Daniel said. “The College elevates the status of the program and provides more opportunities.”

Thanks to the Hicks donation, approximately $180,000 a year will be used by the Honors College for study abroad scholarships, sending about 60 students a year on study abroad opportunities for longer transformational experiences. Research scholarships will be structured to provide incentives for honors students to work closely with faculty in joint research activities in their chosen discipline. Around $80,000 a year will fund Hicks Fellows, selected honors students who are juniors and seniors participating in undergraduate research or travel to academic conferences. The Honors College will also increase its role in recruitment/admissions and increase connections and engagement with both UNF alumni and the Jacksonville community.

This recent gift is yet another example of how Ann and David are two of the most distinguished benefactors in University history. They created the Gray Scholars Program, named after the Rev. Neil Gray, an Episcopal priest and adjunct instructor who taught Ann during her time as a UNF student. She received her second bachelor’s degree from UNF in 1995 and was impressed by the small class sizes and thought-provoking conversations led by engaged faculty. That positive campus experience inspired her to pave the way for nearly 300 students who have received both merit- and need-based financial assistance thanks to their generosity. The Hickses were also a driving force behind the Pathways for Success Scholarship Program, which has provided education support for hundreds of students.

They are intrinsically linked to the continued success of the University. Ann served on the first UNF Board of Trustees and is a current member of the Foundation Board. Ann and David served as co-chairs of the University’s highly successful “Access to Excellence” capital campaign. Their name adorns Hicks Hall, formerly UNF Hall, where much of the University’s important administrative work occurs.

“We both feel so strongly about the important role UNF has in the community,” Ann said. “All we’ve wanted is to make it even better, to make it even better recognized as the jewel that it truly is. The Honors College will do just that.”

The Hicks Honors College’s mission also brilliantly intersects with David’s drive as a community builder. A successful businessman, David funneled his professional talents into civic endeavors, helping to turn around the Jacksonville Housing Authority and partnering with the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, both of which he chaired. As a result, HabiJax is one of the largest and most successful Habitat affiliates in the United States.

The parallels between David’s passion and the UNF Honors mission were apparent from the start, said Jeff Michelman, director of the Hicks Honors College. Honors promotes an interdisciplinary perspective that mixes service-leadership, global awareness and critical thinking with an eye toward helping the regional community. Take the Honors First Year Colloquium, which guides the newest Honors cohort on a journey to explore immigration and national identity while operating a student-run service project that helps refugees in Jacksonville. Students serve as mentors, sports coaches and English tutors to those who need help acclimating to their new homes on the First Coast.

“What we’ve tried to do is provide a connection with our students and the outside world that delves deeper than what they can learn in the classroom,” Michelman said. “Jacksonville has a wide variety of people who call the area home, and students have a constantly changing laboratory to see what’s going on in the world around them and how they can make it better. This kind of program improves empathy, lessens narcissism and shows that one person is more than enough to make a difference.”

Kami Richmond witnessed how the Honors College’s core themes of communication, innovation, critical thinking, leadership, social-political and economic interaction and global awareness could change the way she viewed her college experience. Her first-year colloquium included coaching a soccer team for area youths hailing from Burma and Afghanistan. At that point, she’d only left the country once for a vacation. But for a number of weeks during her freshman year, she spent her Saturdays speaking with children who had lived a world away and encountered more hardships than she could ever imagine.

“They were much younger, but they’d been through so much,” Richmond said. “Despite it all, they were always filled with cheer and excitement to spend time with us. I’m glad that Lutheran Social Services partnered us with them because it helped open my eyes to a world I’d never seen. It was the best way imaginable to spend my Saturdays.”

That opportunity played a huge part in Richmond’s decision to travel to Beijing, China as part of her Honors Capstone. She studied abroad and took classes as part of her international business and economics coursework, but she spent an additional week interning at a foster home for orphans.

“It was just an incredible experience nurturing and caring for these children who needed so badly to be helped,” she said. “The work was so meaningful, and the children appreciated so much the attention you paid to them. It was an amazing opportunity for me, and I’m grateful to the Honors College for making it happen.”

These kind of transformational journeys are what make the Honors College special, Michelman said. By studying abroad with the Honors College, improving the local community by working with HabiJax or Lutheran Social Services or working jointly with world-class faculty in the lab, students can see the world through new eyes and learn what it takes to be leaders in their own right. The mission of the Hicks Honors College dovetails neatly into the personal aspirations of Ann and David, the College’s namesakes.

“When Ann attended UNF, she was struck by the high-level education she received,” Michelman said. “Since then, she’s done what she can to ensure every student has the chance to experience that same level of academic enrichment and support. Her and her husband’s generosity will live on as UNF teaches and trains the next generation of civically minded leaders. It’s a great reflection of their hopes for the region and for the University.”