Commonwealth Honors College: myth or reality?

By Chris Shores

The Boston Globe reported Thursday that the University of Massachusetts plans to build a $182 million “honors complex” for the housing and instruction of Commonwealth Honors College students. The news brought me back two and half years into my past, to spring 2008, when I had to make the difficult decision of where to spend the next four years of my life.

I’m embarrassed to say it now, but for the sake of transparency, I will: I hadn’t wanted to come to UMass. In fact, it was my safety school. I never wanted to go to a school this large. I had been afraid of the “ZooMass” reputation it held. I thought a state school wouldn’t be challenging enough for me. The list of reasons goes on.

But when the rejections started to fill up my mailbox, UMass became more appealing, especially because of my acceptance into Commonwealth College (without its middle name, “Honors,” at the time). Not only did I believe my acceptance to the honors program would make my time at UMass worthwhile, but I also used it as a defense to any criticism I received from my peers on my selection.

When I walked down the halls of my high school for the first time in my grey UMass sweatshirt, I heard, “You’re going to UMass?” or “I could never picture you there.” I smiled and responded, “Yeah, I know, but I’m going to the honors college.” That changed everything. They nodded, they accepted and they approved. The process repeated itself throughout the summer. I identified myself with going to ComCol first, UMass second.

Needless to say, my opinions have drastically changed. Like many of my peers, I have come to think of this school as my home. I have met incredible people and have grown as a person, a student and a journalist. I love the size of this school, and I appreciate the academic opportunities I have here.

A strange thing happened during the last three years. The two schools I identified as being a part of swapped places. I now am proud to be a UMass student and will defend the school from any criticism.

I can’t say the same for Commonwealth Honors College.

Its problems for me began in my first semester when I arrived at UMass and saw firsthand the stark contrast between my expectations of ComCol and reality. I had been told, or led to believe, that there was separate housing for ComCol students. I’m not exactly sure if I had pictured a large building filled with intellectuals, but I had been looking forward to being surrounded by fellow honors students.

But there were no honors-only dormitories. I was then led to believe there were honors-only floors within dorms, but even this wasn’t true.

It was my understanding that opportunities like the Honors RAP (Residential Academic Program) would allow me to a feel a part of a community of honors students. But when I took the class, I saw it as just a class with students on my floor. Honors classes had been boasted to us as an opportunity to take smaller, enriching classes on a large campus. But small classes exist in every department and any class can be made honors.

I was told that through regular social events at ComCol, I would become part of a smaller community within the larger UMass community. I haven’t been to many of these social events, but I also haven’t felt the need. I made my own friends at UMass and I fortunately matured enough to see that it didn’t matter whether or not my peers were honors students.

It used to be that in order to get the Latin honors distinctions of Magna Cum Laude and Summa Cum Laude, you had to be in Commonwealth College. Beginning in May 2009, everyone on campus could receive these honors.

Another benefit to being enrolled in the honors college was receiving a $500 scholarship every semester. This semester, I still received that scholarship, but then had to turn over $150 for what the Bursar bill refers to as an “Honors College fee.”

At a family gathering a year ago, a relative I hadn’t seen in a while asked me, “How’s it going at UMass? Crazy as ever?” Before I could say anything, another relative answered for me, “Oh, but he is in the honors college there.” My response – vastly different from my answer years prior – was, “Well, the honors program just means students are scattered all throughout. UMass is great.”

I no longer identify with being a student at Commonwealth Honors College. I never considered dropping out of the program, but prior to Thursday’s announcement, I saw little reason for future students to enroll in ComCol. All the benefits I had once seen in being a part of the honors college were either proved partially or wholly false, or they had flat out changed.

My time so far at UMass has been amazing, and the school has exceeded nearly every expectation I had for it. My experience with ComCol has been the opposite.

I understand this isn’t solely ComCol’s fault. Times are tough across the state, and money is not always generously given out to education programs. I’m hoping this will change for future honors college students, especially with the construction of the new honors complex.

A press release issued by UMass Spokesman Ed Blaguszewski reported that the “facility will be one of the best public university complexes of its kind in the nation, and include 1,500 beds, nine classrooms, faculty residences and space for gathering, advising and administration of the program.” In addition to being a place to live and study, the Globe stated that the complex will also include a “cyber café and lounge space,” a hangout spot that will surely be a step up from the 5th floor common room in Goodell Hall.

It sounds like the honors program I envisioned when I first decided to come here. The decision to build the complex is the first sign I have seen that the University and the state of Massachusetts legitimately care about this honors college.

I wouldn’t change a thing about how things played out for me here in Amherst. ComCol wasn’t as much a part of my college experience as I had once thought and hoped for, but that was OK. I found a community of my own. I enrolled in classes which appealed to my interests and challenged me. But other students who were also seeking an honors experience may not be able to say the same.

That’s why I’m excited for the future possibilities brought forth by the decision to build this complex. Perhaps this will help make people across the state and country realize that UMass should be taken seriously as a university. If nothing else, it is my hope that when the complex is completed, students will be able to live, learn and grow together as a large family within the larger University.

The myth of an existence of a real honors community at UMass may yet become a reality.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]