Most weekdays, the Buffalo State College Howard Honors Hub is teeming with activity—students working on computers, printing out assignments, studying, and chatting with one another.
The Hub, as it’s affectionately known, is a computer lounge located on the third floor of South Wing next to the Muriel A. Howard Honors (MAH) Program Office. Some 20 to 30 students visit each day.
To Honors Program Director Amy McMillan, the influx of students reflects the explosive growth of the program that was established in 1984 as a way to offer academically challenging opportunities to high-achieving and intellectually committed undergraduate students.
The honors program now boasts 550 students, more than double the number enrolled when McMillan assumed the role of interim director in fall 2017. This fall, a record 172 new students entered the program—160 freshmen and 12 transfer students.
“It’s grown by word of mouth,” said McMillan a biology professor who joined the Buffalo State faculty in 2003 and was hired as the program’s permanent director in spring 2019. “The reputation for what students get from the program is out there. Hard work on the part of the Undergraduate Admissions Office and my office have also helped boost the numbers.”
To qualify for the program, students must have a high school grade point average (GPA) of 90 or above and strong extracurricular activities. Of the students accepted to the program, about 45 each year are awarded the Muriel A. Howard Scholarship, which provides $1,250 per semester and is renewable for up to four years.
“The reputation for what students get from the program is out there.”
Even without the scholarship, the honors program offers a host of attractive perks, including access to seminar-style honors courses on engaging topics; priority registration; priority housing in Bishop Hall, a residence hall designed for high-achieving students; leadership opportunities; organized social activities both on and off campus; and use of the computer lounge, which includes free printing.
In spring 2020, the honors program office moved from an increasingly cramped space on the first floor of Twin Rise to a larger one in South Wing that is more welcoming and conducive to meeting with students.
McMillan noted that the Dean’s Honors Program, created in 2017, may have helped increase the program numbers initially. The goal of Dean’s Honors was to include high-achieving students who didn’t meet all the academic requirements of the MAH program; but, McMillan said, the short-lived program, which has since been dismantled, does not account for the program’s current success.
“We found that students coming in with a high school GPA of 86 or 87 weren’t necessarily ready to do the honors program work,” she said. “We decided to raise the GPA to 90 for all students, and we’re still seeing record enrollment.”
The program is attracting more faculty, too. Currently, 20 faculty members are teaching such unique courses as Strange Fictions, taught by Lorna Perez, associate professor of English, and the Human Microbiome, taught by biology professor emeritus Gary Pettibone.
When McMillan took the reins, her long-term goal was for honors students to constitute 10 percent of the college’s entire undergraduate population. To that end, she has worked on outreach and recruitment even through the coronavirus pandemic.
“Although there were no campus tours during COVID, I personally met with about 20 students and their parents over the course of the 2021 spring semester—following all COVID protocols with masks and staying outside and socially distanced,” she said. “I made sure we were safe but also available to answer questions from potential students and give them a feel for the campus.”
“Honors can be so much more than a line on your transcript.”
Also, in spring 2019, the program opened up enrollment to current Buffalo State students who qualify and have completed fewer than 45 credits. Currently, 120 students in the program were admitted as ongoing students.
To keep up with its expansion, the honors program hired Matt Baran in September as the new assistant director. With a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs from Ohio State University, Baran has coordinated large-scale student events and worked in a college wellness center.
He said he’d like to offer wellness coaching to honors students to help ease anxiety, along with new leadership opportunities, such as mentorships.
“It will encourage students to take ownership of the program,” Baran said. “Honors can be so much more than a line on your transcript.”
He will also teach the Introduction to Honors course—which helps familiarize freshmen with the campus—and handle most of the social media and social programming.
To keep students engaged, they have introduced fun initiatives, such as Treat and Topics Tuesdays, Wellness Wednesdays, seasonal activities like pumpkin carving, and a monthly book club started by Carol Beckley, associate professor of theater, who served part time as the previous assistant director of the honors program.
“We’re also building an honors presence in activities on and off campus,” Baran said. “For example, more than 70 honors students participated in Bengal Dare to Care this fall, and we plan to bring close to 30 students to the opening night of Heathers: The Musical to support their peers in theater.”
McMillan said these extra efforts should help expand the program even further, which might mean meeting or exceeding the goal she set two years ago.
“I’m very grateful to be in a position to help nurture growth in the program going forward,” McMillan said. “It’s a joy working with these students, watching them mature and helping them find their place on campus and in the world.”
Photo by Bruce Fox, campus photographer.