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The inaugural class of ECU's Honors College heads into the world

By Amy Adams Ellis
ECU News Services

Financial perks originally drew Hannah Potter ’14 to East Carolina University. But she says her Honors College experience is what ultimately made her past four years priceless.

Potter is one of approximately 50 inaugural Honors College seniors who received their degrees in May. They helped set the standard for what has become a model program.

“This college helps us compete with the University of Virginia, Duke, Elon, UNC-Chapel Hill, even Harvard,” says Kevin Baxter, associate dean for the Honors College.

In recent years, ECU has made great strides in the area of scholarship excellence, largely because of the impressive bundling of opportunities offered within the Honors College experience, he added.

When Potter entered the Honors College in fall 2010 as part of the first class, she was taken aback by the menu of opportunities offered to her, from community engagement to faculty interactions.

“The Honors College here is very supportive of student efforts,” she says. “It’s always open to discussion, and it encourages initiative.”

The Marshville native says she especially enjoyed the program’s community atmosphere and the ways it promotes leadership and service.

From students to leaders

To Potter and more than 50 others from the Honors College inaugural class, ECU’s spring commencement was also an “honorable discharge” into new ventures of leadership, scholarship, service and excellence throughout eastern North Carolina and beyond.

Administrators are confident these graduates are equipped to tackle the challenges ahead, thanks to the experiences they’ve collected over the past four years: rigorous academic course work, interdisciplinary seminars, intensive research, pre-professional internships, leadership development, immersive service-learning projects and study-abroad opportunities.

Marianna Walker, who became dean of the Honors College last July, called the college a “gem at ECU” because it raises the value of the individual honors student experience as well as the academic profile of the university at large. She says interest in the college has grown significantly the past couple of years, and the competition for admission is strong.

“Students who are also recruited for other top universities in North Carolina are choosing ECU as a result of our unique Honors College model, which includes financial, academic and service opportunities,” she says.

Annually since 2010, approximately 100 motivated, academically gifted freshmen have been accepted into the college, attracted by the gamut of benefits it offers. Those same benefits are enabling ECU to retain most of these students until they graduate.

All students accepted into the college receive base scholarships equal to the cost of in-state tuition, renewable for up to four years. Those who graduate early—and there are quite a few—are allowed to apply their fourth-year scholarships toward ECU graduate programs.


Other grants and scholarships can be stacked on top of the base one, including the top ECU undergraduate merit scholarships, the EC Scholars award—a $61,000 package presented to 20 outstanding freshmen annually.

Other Honors College benefits include on-campus housing within the living-learning community of Garrett Residence Hall, guaranteed admission into certain ECU graduate programs and unique co-curricular programming that augments regular honors courses to keep students challenged. Many optional enrichment opportunities—medical, cultural, entrepreneurial—are available.

“We back up all of our experiences with support,” Baxter says. “We find the resources to deliver. We never charge for participation. We want students to regard all these experiences as helping them toward success.”

Baxter says the Honors College at ECU has garnered a national reputation among public and private universities alike as the model to mimic. “We are the pioneers,” he says. “We researched the various elements of honors programs elsewhere, but the way we put them together is unique.

“Our Honors College is the university’s college,” he says. “It belongs to everyone. It touches everyone.” For example, faculty members for seminar classes change every year, and teaching opportunities are open and competitive.

In addition, 115 industry leaders across the state have given more than $10,000 each to the college, and increasing numbers of alumni and business leaders are participating in ECU honors events and mentoring honors students.

Solid beginnings

The original honors program at ECU grew out of an early 1970s movement within the English department to keep their brightest students challenged by adding more demanding course work. A few years later, those efforts had blossomed into a four-year model and branched out to other departments.

During the 1990s, around the same time the EC Scholars award began under the guidance of then-chancellor Richard Eakin, the university appointed Michael Bassman the first director for the honors program.

“My goal was to encourage the students to be open-minded by thinking for themselves and stepping outside of their comfort zones,” says Bassman, who will retire in June from his most recent appointment as scholarship and fellowship advisor for the Honors College, taking with him the title of distinguished honors professor emeritus. “Every seminar was also a learning experience for me.”

Bassman says the Honors College develops well-rounded graduates, not only through solid academic experiences, but also through active community involvement close to campus and abroad.

In the late 2000s, ECU administrators hit another wall in their ongoing efforts to recruit and retain desirable numbers of academically elite students.

“There was no brand for them to connect to, no scholarship opportunities other than EC Scholars,” says Baxter, who was hired in 2010 to lead the transition from a program to a college. As part of that transition, the EC Scholars program moved into the Honors College under the leadership of Katie O’Connor.

That fall, although there was no formal application process or honors curriculum established, 103 previously enrolled ECU students were invited to join the Honors College inaugural class, and each of them received a $1,500-to-$2,000 scholarship.

At the time, ECU was the only university in the state to offer a scholarship to every honors student.

The average unweighted high school grade-point average for this inaugural group was 3.77, and their average Scholastic Aptitude Test score was 1,254. From this cohort, 53 students are May graduates, six graduated early and 13 have chosen to stay at ECU at least one more semester.

Provost Marilyn Sheerer, who is stepping down in August, is often credited as the driving force behind the creation of the Honors College because she saw it as the ideal way to challenge top students while fulfilling the university’s historic mission of providing broad access to higher education.

Robert Brinkley, chairman of the ECU Board of Trustees, who was also instrumental in helping ECU transform the honors program into the formalized Honors College it is today, agrees.

“For ECU, it’s always been a challenge to reconcile the two parts of our mission—one being access and the other excellence,” Brinkley says. Simply raising general academic admissions standards to attract higher-achieving high school students, he says, can have the negative effect of keeping out students who have the potential to become very successful.

“The Honors College allows ECU to attract—and continually challenge—these highly motivated students without detracting from the access part of our mission,” Brinkley says. “It ensures we’re emphasizing the excellence side without changing the overall university profile too much,” he says. “An added bonus is that it raises the level of intellectual curiosity and academic excellence all across the campus over time.”

Walker says Honors College graduates will have a sense of philanthropy and loyalty to ECU. “Their success is East Carolina University’s success,” she says. “East Carolina University’s success is eastern North Carolina’s success.”

Valuable experiences

Despite having studied in India and Morocco on the way to her degree in multidisciplinary studies, Potter says the many hours she spent volunteering at an after-school program in west Greenville was one of the most valuable experiences she had during her Honors College tour.

Throughout her four years at ECU, Potter served 10 hours a week at the Little Willie Center, where she developed an ongoing, interactive nature-appreciation program for the children. She also created a service-learning program for them, which she hopes will continue for years to come.

Potter, a 2014 recipient of the university’s prestigious Robert H. Wright Alumni Leadership Award, plans a stint or two serving vulnerable populations before entering graduate school and pursuing her long-range goal of becoming a college professor. Because she has an affinity for the struggles of women in the Middle East, she went so far as to seek out a local Syrian to tutor her in Arabic during her spare time.

Baxter says Honors College students have served 18 nonprofit organizations in Pitt County in recent months through the curriculum’s required Impact Projects. He says students are always thrilled by the chance to affect the region by directly applying the leadership philosophies they’ve studied.

“It’s all about engaging others in the lives of these students,” says Baxter. “We want them to form mutually beneficial relationships that allow them to explore their individual, unique passions.”

Christine Gurganus

Christine Gurganus

Hometown: Chocowinity, N.C.
Major: Mechanical engineering
Graduation: May 2014
  • EC Scholar
  • Internship at NASA White Sands Test Facility, Las Cruces, N.M., summer 2013
  • Internship at the Technische Universitat Darmstadt in Germany, summer 2012
  • Research assistant in the ECU Department of Engineering on a project for the N.C. Department of Transportation, 2011-2012, 2012-2013
  • Employed by the U.S. government at the Fleet Readiness Center, operated by NAVAIR and housed at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
“I came in as a premed major, took one engineering course just to explore what it was like, ended up loving it, changed my major to biomedical engineering, then realized I didn’t want to do anything medical. It was an evolution. ECU allowed me that flexibility.

“A lot of Honors College students are from North Carolina, and we all have this common goal to improve this region that we’ve come from. If you put a whole bunch of students together with a common goal like that, the outcome is going to be amazing.”