National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version


Document Type



Miller, K.A., ed. 2020. Building Honors Contracts: Insights and Oversights. National Collegiate Honors Council Monograph Series. pp 263-294.


Copyright © 2020 by National Collegiate Honors Council.


Six years ago, in my first week as director of the Utah State University (USU) Honors Program, a senior physics major and her frustrated faculty mentor marched into my office. The student was shy and embarrassed, the mentor surly and blunt: “Why,” he asked, “must a senior complete an honors contract in a class that isn’t fundamentally shaping her future?” Good question. Because students were required to earn honors credits each term at USU, the choice facing this student was whether to enroll in an honors general education course she did not need or to develop a contract to deepen the work of a non-honors course only tangentially related to her impressive research agenda. The problem was that she had completed her major coursework and was just fulfilling some remaining requirements as she focused outside the classroom on her true academic passions: multi-messenger astronomy, measurement of ambient light pollution, and public science education. She had recently applied for and won a Goldwater Scholarship for research coupling electromagnetic and gravitational astronomy. She was also collaborating with local city officials to measure and propose solutions to a growing light-pollution problem in our northern Utah valley and volunteering for a range of public science education programs on campus. As she explained how her research, Goldwater application, and community engagement connected to each other, this shy and embarrassed student became animated and expansive, moving me to rethink honors contract rules. If a contract involved additional faculty-mentored academic work beyond course requirements, why did that work have to be connected to a particular course and mentored by its instructor? Indeed, bringing one’s curiosity to life—whether through engagement with undergraduate research and creative work, applications for national scholarships and fellowships, or development of collaborative community partnerships—quite clearly defines honors education, in or outside of the classroom.