Reconsidering the Prestige of the Campuswide Honors Program

It was the beginning of August before my freshman year when I stared at my fall schedule thinking, “What have I done?” A couple of weeks before, I had attended an orientation session for students accepted into the Campuswide Honors Program, and signed up for a hefty 21 units.

The CHP promises an enriching experience that will enhance its members’ success during and after college. Recently, UCI announced in its strategic plan for the current school year that it hopes to turn the CHP into a separate honors college. But as someone who was once attracted to the idea of being part of the CHP, I believe that this distinction will only add to the illusion that the CHP is something for the “cream of the crop” as they suggested when I went to orientation, when it is in fact simply a program that encourages its members to do their best by providing encouragement and challenges to overcome.

During orientation, I remember sitting in a small computer room, anxiously asking other freshman honor students what classes they were taking. They all said the same thing: “I just went with the schedule the counselors gave us.” We were all given sample schedules for our respective majors which included the honors courses we would have to take as part of the program. I tried in vain to customize my own schedule, since I had looked forward to picking my own classes in college, but ended up settling for the ones I was given.

By the end of August, I had dropped out of the CHP and signed up for different classes. I figured that going into my first year, I wanted to feel confident, not overwhelmed.
Despite this reasoning, I felt a little disappointed in myself. I had taken honors and AP courses throughout high school like many of the people in the CHP, yet felt like I was giving up after all my hard work. I went from being “the cream of the crop” to being a “normal student.”

I soon realized that being a part of the CHP does not actually make you the cream of the crop. I do not say this to put down the people in the program, and definitely not to suggest the opposite, as many of them are my friends. I say this because I know people who performed similarly to me in high school, but for some reason were not placed in the CHP.

Rather, the program gives you a well-rounded and challenging course load to handle (I’m looking at you, Honors Humanities Core), capped with a research project and thesis at the end. If you make it through this, then chances are you have created a lot of worthwhile connections and grown in a lot of ways. And let’s not forget the fact that you can write “Campuswide Honors Program” on your resume.

However, these long-term benefits are not specific to being in the CHP.

The whole point of going to a college is to challenge oneself intellectually, gain new experiences and friends and become a valuable individual in one’s chosen field. If you play your cards right, you can do all of this and more without being part of the CHP, and you can do it your way, without all of those honor course requirements crowding up your schedule.

Maybe I only took 14 units my first quarter, but I still fulfilled the course requirements for my major. Although I didn’t mingle with teachers at the CHP coffee hour, I still got to know a lot of my professors and TAs from attending their office hours and talking to them individually. And although I wasn’t taking classes with an honors cohort, I still made friends and connections who have helped me succeed in my classes, got involved in organizations and research and had some fun in my spare time.

So even though I dropped out of the CHP, supposedly giving up on a challenge and taking an easier route, I replaced it with other opportunities that were more fulfilling and less stress-inducing.

At the end of the day, the Campuswide Honors Program is just that: a program. It gives the comfort of being in a group of people similar to oneself and a feeling of confidence knowing that there is a worthwhile reward at the end of it all. If you choose to stay in the CHP or join later in college, and you see it through until the end, then that’s another token to add to your memory book and achievements list.

And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I have heard nothing but good things from those who made it through the program. But making such a program into a college would only create a greater unnecessary separation between those students with “honors” in front of their course titles and those without.

Michelle Bui is a second-year biological sciences major. She can be reached at mkbui@uci.edu.