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The EKU Honors program is much more than free books and a maroon mortarboard — in the last three decades, it has graduated thousands of students and garnered national acclaim. This year, the program celebrated its 30th anniversary.

EKU Honors has evolved significantly since its founding in the 1988-1989 academic year. Its legacy and future are both passions of Honors program director Dr. David Coleman.

“EKU Honors is unique among its peers in several ways,” said Coleman.

More than 75 percent of EKU students who begin in the honors curriculum graduate with the “Honors Scholar” distinction — nearly 30 percent more than the national average.

“To me,” said Coleman, “our extremely high honors completion rates are a direct result of the strength of honors community and identity among our students.”

The successes of the Honors Program have put EKU in the national spotlight in the higher education community. Since 1990, more than 1,000 EKU honors students have made presentations at the annual meeting of the National Collegiate Honors Council, more than any other Honors College or Honors Program in the entire nation.

Though one of the most successful honors programs in the state, EKU Honors is also one of the newest programs. Prior to 1988, EKU was the only state school without an Honors program. That year, Dr. Hanly Funderburk, president of EKU from 1985 to 1998, appointed a faculty committee to develop one and appointed Dr. Bonnie Gray, professor emerita in philosophy, director. Gray’s initial contributions to the new program included curriculum development, fundraising, and the planning of extracurricular activities. Fondly remembered by early honors alumni are her “cultural trips,” group outings to major cities that later evolved into the Sidewalk U class.

Sidewalk U is a unique study-away course offered every spring semester. Each January, before the start of the semester, students enrolled in the course and the team of professors instructing it embark on a week-long trip to that semester’s city to study a chosen topic. The past two years, students have traveled to Nogales, a city split between Arizona and Mexico, for the course “Arizona/Sonora Borderlands.” The innovative course was taught by sociology professor Dr. Elizabeth Underwood and English professor Dr. Thomas Butler. The trip often includes a service project, and upon returning to EKU, students spend the remainder of the semester on a final project.

That element of service has been a pervasive part of the culture of the EKU Honors program since Coleman took over in 2013.

“It is important to encourage development of a full person, intellectual understanding as well as compassion,” he said.

Love Richburg, president of the Honors Student Advisory Council, has felt the benefits of a culture of service more than most students. “Active participants in the Honors program have the opportunity to learn that there are many more benefits to service than simply using it as a way to make yourself look better on paper,” she reflected. “Performing service gives you the opportunity to see things from another perspective, to learn the joy of doing something to help someone else, and to benefit the community.”

At the backbone of the Honors Program’s appeal is the supportive community it nurtures. The Honors Living Learning Community, housed partially in historic Burnam Hall and partially in the new Martin Hall, allows Honors students to connect outside of class. “Throughout high school, I was constantly toiling over how to better fit in or better stand out in all the right ways,” said Richburg. “Living in the Honors Living Learning Community my first two years of college was amazing because I was immersed in a community of people who were all very different, yet we were all connected by the Honors Program and a passion for learning.”

Though a relative newcomer to Honors education, the EKU Honors program has already created an enduring, multigenerational legacy. It reaps its own benefits in the form of alumni who return to serve it with their careers. Its offerings inspire creativity, critical thinking, widening worldviews and service.

Richburg summed it up best: “My time in Honors has helped me become more confident in being myself and it has also given me more perspective on being considerate of others,” she said. “We are all very different, but maybe that's what makes us so similar.”