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Honors Program and Its Students Make Great Strides at Catawba College

January 24, 2018

Category: Academics, Students

2017 Honors Program Graduates

Catawba College sophomore Sarah Cuthbert, an honors program student, shares, "Being in the honors program is just as challenging as it sounds, but the classes that are offered are amazing and the work is worth it."

Quite a testimony to the effect such a program can have on the undergraduate life of a participant and music to the ears of Catawba Honors Program (CHP) administrators, Dr. Maria Vandergriff-Avery, director, and Dr. Sal Musumeci, associate director. Vandergriff-Avery has directed the program for the past eight years while Musumeci's appointment as associate director (part of the CHP's strategic plan) happened this year.

CHP has grown steadily over the past six years and its faculty administrators credit generous funding provided by an anonymous donor for serving as its accelerant.  A $300,000 gift allowed the program to underwrite the cost of conference travel for students, enabled it to provide academic and social activities for its members each semester, and provide funding to bring the costs of international and domestic travel opportunities within reach for Honors Program students for a five year period.

Then, over the recent holiday break, college administrators learned that the same aforementioned donor had made a $2 million gift to endow CHP, assuring its long-term viability and supporting the continued student growth that it is experiencing.


"This was such welcomed and affirming news for our program," Vandergriff-Avery explained. "It speaks to the fact that supporters both observe and approve of the wonderful growth our honors students can experience because opportunities for them are funded and prioritized."

Participation in the program, based on student enrollment in honors courses offered, has grown from 88 total students during the 2011-2012 academic year, to 190 total students during the 2017-2018 academic year.

To enter the CHP, incoming first-year students must have at least a 1220 SAT (verbal/math combined) and a 3.75 GPA. Students who earn a 3.5 during their first semester at Catawba are also given the opportunity to apply to the program.

Those students who graduate with honors must successfully complete 21 semester hours of honors coursework, a portfolio of their honors program work, a portfolio narrative to explain how their studies met the goals of Catawba's program, domestic or international travel, and 40 hours of community service.  These students must also successfully write and present an honors thesis.

The number of students who graduate with honors at Catawba has increased over the past several years; nine students graduated with honors in 2017, and 10 students are expected to graduate with honors in May 2018.  First year students can kindle their aspirations to become an honors graduate thanks to the recent implementation of a workshop offered during fall of their first year entitled "How to Graduate with Honors."  Other workshops designed to keep prospective honors graduates on track include "How to Begin an Honors Thesis," for first-year students and sophomores; continuation of a thesis writing workshop for juniors; and an optional "Thesis Writing Seminar" open to all juniors who intend to graduate with honors.

Since its inception at Catawba more than three decades ago, the overall mission of CHP is to involve academically gifted students in a community of scholars who pursue challenging education experiences with outstanding faculty. 

Hill (right) with Ralph Ketner

Joshua Hill, the male Whitener Award recipient in the graduating class of 2016, was one of those students who fulfilled all of the honors requirements. Hill's honors thesis was entitled "SOX with Holes: An Investigation of the Loopholes and Omissions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act."

After graduating from Catawba, Hill accepted an offer of a graduate fellowship at N.C. State University to further his education in accounting and economics. He had this to say about his participation in Catawba's Honors Program: "It has resulted in me being a better student and has helped me develop skills that will ultimately make me more successful in my accounting career."


Then there's Justin Burroughs, also the male Whitener Award recipient in the graduating class of 2017, whose honors thesis was entitled "Changing the World through Chemistry: The Benefits of Biologically-Derived Molecules and Chemical Step Reduction in Manufacturing through the Analysis of the Triple Bottom Line Concept and Conscious Capitalism." Burroughs pursued an academic major in chemistry and a minor in biology during his time at Catawba.  After graduation, he was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate to study polymer chemistry at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

One of only nine students in his graduating class to write and present a thesis, he shared these thoughts: "My experience in the honors program challenged me to be the best that I can be both in the classroom and as an individual.  All my courses require me to be creative through connecting disciplines to my own interests and through completing projects that are outside of my comfort zone.  Each class had a high level of rigor due to high expectations placed on honors students.  The honors classes I have taken taught me to keep an open mind about all subjects in order to grow as an individual."

The aforementioned donor funding, payable over several years, gave the honors program fuel to allow Catawba students to attend and present at state, regional and national honors conferences. Or, as Musumeci says, "There has been a culture shift in the program that allows Catawba to start showing up at conferences."

With assurance of funding to dream bigger, Vandergriff-Avery developed a five-year strategic plan for CHP in 2014, complete with goals, some of which have already been implemented.

Goals set include 1) continue to strengthen a sense of community among CHP members; 2) enhance the appeal of the CHP to recruit prospective students to the program; 3) increase the rate of students who graduate with honors; 4) strengthen administration of the program; 5) increase the visibility of the CHP on campus and in the community; and 6) establish a CHP Endowment.

Goals met include:

  • Conversion of Hurley Hall into an honors program Residence Hall for sophomores to seniors; and conversion of the tower in Salisbury-Rowan Residence Hall to Honors Program first-year housing;
  • Establishment of an honors lounge or study space on the second floor of the Hedrick Administration Building;
  • Sponsoring 1 social activity and 1 academic activity for CHP students each semester;
  • CHP student participation at state, regional and/or national honors conferences;
  • Increase in the number of students graduating with honors;
  • Hiring of an Associate Director;
  • Improved marketing of the CHP;
  • And most notably, the establishment of a CHP endowment.

While reflecting on the program's recent successes, Vandergriff-Avery noted, "Thanks to our generous donors, the CHP has been able to build on the strong CHP curriculum that previous director, Dr. Sheila Brownlow, established in 2001 and to successfully meet most of our strategic plan goals in less than five years.  We are excited about the recent changes that have afforded numerous opportunities for Catawba students and look forward to providing even more opportunities in the future."


Catawba junior and cheerleader, Molly Sue Harmon of Charlotte, says the travel opportunities and the class options offered by CHP attracted her to Catawba.  It is also because of this program, she asserts, "I feel that I am a person who continuously thinks outside the box, throughout multiple disciplines.  I have become better-rounded and more understanding of the community that I live in.  I have grown to understand different cultures through my education in the honors program.  I feel that I have been made into a strong person because of it."

Looking ahead to her 2019 graduation from Catawba, Harmon is planning her honors thesis "about the multiple translations of the Bible over the years and how these translations have an impact not only on the formation of denominations within Christianity but how they impact religion, culture and the world as a whole."

Harmon was among Catawba honors students who have attended and made presentations at honors conferences.  She, and two fellow students, made a presentation in spring 2017 at the Southern Regional Honors Conference, about an online magazine they had developed for their honors Adventure Writing class.  "It was a great experience, and encouraged me to continue pursuing my love of writing throughout all of my coursework in the time to come at Catawba."

And after graduation, Harmon has her sights set on law school where she will pursue a juris doctorate with plans of becoming a criminal lawyer.


Recruited to Catawba College to play on the women's soccer team, sophomore Ashley Bornkamp of Mooresville, explains that she "was not looking to apply to the honors college at Catawba when I first committed here for soccer."  However, after attending the McCorkle's Scholarship competition on campus, she says, "I realized that the honors program was the place for me.  At the event, everyone was so welcoming and influential that I made the decision to pursue an academic career in the honors college here at Catawba.

"I have taken an honors course every semester since I have enrolled at Catawba, and it has been very impactful on the quality of my education," Bornkamp continues.  "The honors courses challenge my thinking, not only in my honors classes, but also within my other studies.  One of my favorite things about honors courses is the opportunity for the students to take some sort of field trip.  In my most recent honors course, we had the opportunity to visit various places of worship.  It was an eye-opening experience as I understood and appreciate many new cultures."


Cuthbert, a sophomore double majoring in history and political science with a concentration in pre-law, also spoke of the impact an honors class trip to Chicago had on her college career.  Over fall break this year, she traveled to the Windy City with her fellow students and faculty in the "Sounds of Silence: Music as Voice for the Oppressed" class.  "Learning how to play the blues was an amazing experience I never would've had without the honors program!" she exclaims.

To learn more about the Catawba Honors Program, visit

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