Date of this Version
Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 19:1 (Spring/Summer 2018), pp3-8.
In October 2011, just two months after I became Director of the University Honors Program at Loyola New Orleans, my new home town was simultaneously proclaimed both “America’s Best City for Foodies” (Forbes) and the country’s “Worst Food Desert” (Lammers). The city known for beignets and crawfish, Mardi Gras and jazz, was revealed to have only one supermarket for each 16,000 residents (half the national average), with some residents traveling over fifteen miles from their homes to purchase fresh produce.
In the past six years, the situation has been somewhat ameliorated by multiple farmers markets throughout the city that accept food stamps and by an urban farm movement that has been repurposing land, abandoned and overgrown since Katrina, in the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Even so, one of six children in New Orleans experiences food insecurity, and food injustice is not the only challenge facing this city of tremendous inequities:
・ 40% of adults are illiterate;
・ 39% of New Orleans’ children live in poverty; and
・ 1 in 14 black males is incarcerated in a city where 60.2% of the population is African American. (Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world.)
I emphasize my city’s inequities because Loyola, a Jesuit university located in uptown New Orleans, intertwines with its community as both a place of privilege and a point of access. Loyola, a masters-level institution, is far more diverse than Tulane, the much larger, less “artsy,” and more affluent research university next door. In 2017, Loyola was ranked #4 in the region for ethnic diversity by the U.S. News & World Report and, according to The Princeton Review, #13 in the country for race/class interaction (Loyola). Although the Loyola University Honors Program is, like many other honors programs and colleges, somewhat “whiter” than the rest of the institution (half of whose undergraduates are students of color), approximately 30% of honors students are people of color, 30% are the first in their families to attend college, and 26% are Pell-eligible. Geographically, 60% of honors students come from outside of Louisiana; some may come for our nationally ranked music industries program, knowing nothing about the city’s social justice challenges, while others may decide to come after a “Voluntourism” service or mission trip here in high school. At least 25% of honors students, however, are from the greater New Orleans area and so have experienced in some way the loss and displacement of Katrina regardless of their childhood social and economic backgrounds. More recently, a number of our students lost their homes (some for the second time) or were otherwise affected by the flooding near Baton Rouge in the summer of 2016. Now, as I write this essay, images of devastation from Houston, along with our own city’s torrential rain and dysfunctional pumps, are bringing up painful memories and raising anxiety. I suspect that my colleagues on the provost council at Loyola have turned our conversations into a virtual drinking game, betting on how quickly I will say the word “honors.” NCHC board members, in turn, may secretly promise themselves a shot each time I bring up Loyola or New Orleans. I do think my program is special, as each of us does, or at least should, but I am starting my discussion with Loyola because our story crystallizes two essential questions about honors education and social justice: first, how to engage our highestability and most motivated students in questions of justice; and second, how honors can be a place of access, equity, and excellence in higher education.