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Honors Through the Years

By Raimah Hossain, Honors Student Ambassador

Dr. Bill Collins and wife, Karen.
Dr. Bill Collins and his wife, Karen.

Dr. Bill Collins, former director of the Honors Program, spent time with us reminiscing on the beginning of the Honors Program and its evolution into the Honors College today.

Getting Started at WVU

Collins and his wife, Karen, worked at West Virginia University in a variety of capacities for over 32 years. After spending two years in India with his family, Dr. Collins joined the biology department at WVU in 1967. Upon joining the biology department, Collins quickly moved his way upward, eventually reaching University-level administrative positions. He spent time as the dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, then followed by a position as vice president for academic affairs for the University.

Eventually, when Martha Howard, the founder of the Honors Program, retired, Collins was selected as the best candidate to become the new director of the program.

“I was thinking, just a few minutes ago … in the next couple of months, it will have been 20 years since I retired, so you understand if my memory gets a little foggy,” Collins laughed, as he began discussing his time with the Honors Program with us.

The Early Years

The Honors Program was inspired by a visit Martha Howard took to England, where she observed the layout of various Honors programs. When she returned to WVU, she began the Honors Program, which became into the Honors College in 2006.

The Honors Program began as a four-year pathway, as opposed to the two-tier system used in the Honors College today. The program was course-based, and students would enroll in specific Honors sections of courses throughout their four years at WVU. These courses were usually more hands-on and discussion-based than the other sections, similar to the experience of students in the first two years of the Honors College now under the Honors Foundations Program.

Early Changes

Towards the end of Collins’ time as director, a senior thesis requirement was introduced to the program, parallels of which can be seen in the second tier of the Honors College today, under the Honors EXCEL Program. While the program then and now both involve projects completed by students towards the end of their time at WVU, Collins said he appreciated the increase in emphasis on community-service oriented projects within the Honors EXCEL program, as opposed to the old senior thesis requirement, which was usually embedded in the students’ majors.

Reflecting on his attendance at national conferences for Honors colleges throughout the country, Collins gathered that the Honors EXCEL program was an excellent idea and “a direction that many larger universities were going.”

Consistent Focus on Community and Student Success

Despite the differences in structure between the Honors Program and the Honors College today, speaking to Collins about his favorite memories displayed the continued commitment over time to both student success and the establishment of a welcoming Honors community.

Collins spoke specifically about his interactions with a Foundation Scholarship finalist. “He was not happy,” Collins remembers about the bright young man, who had planned on attending schools such as MIT to pursue his degree in physics. He encouraged the student to visit the physics department at WVU and introduce himself to some of the faculty there, so he could learn more about some of the research the university was completing at the time.

“Before I knew it, he had a key to the department,” Dr.Collins continued. Collins noted that the Honors College granted students opportunities to complete research and truly maximize their potential more than they could have imagined prior to reaching campus.

Remembering his last 4 years at WVU, when he and his wife, Karen, lived on-campus as Resident Faculty Leaders (a program that no longer exists at WVU), Collins loved that he got to interact with students on a more personal basis. Whether it be counseling sessions with students, reassuring them that their major would take them to far places (despite their parents’ initial disapproval), or communal dinners with a group of Honors students (something deans of the Honors College have continued to do since then), community-building was something that was always important to Dr. Collins and the other staff at the program.

So much so that Collins and his partners imagined the designated “Honors floors” of residence halls over campus would eventually need to lead to a residence hall that was entirely Honors-designated to truly allow Honors students to connect with one another, regardless of their major or field. Currently, there are not one, but two residence halls that are open only to Honors students: Honors Hall located downtown and Lincoln Hall located on the Evansdale campus.

A Program on the Rise

The opening of two Honors residence halls emphasizes the growth in numbers of the Honors Program over time. Collins stated that when he retired as director in 2000, the program had about 600 students. The Honors College currently has approximately 2,600 students enrolled for Fall 2020. Over twenty years, the number of students has more than quadrupled. While some of Collins’ partners in the program feared this seemingly overwhelming growth in numbers, Collins welcomes the change with open arms.

“It is important for the university to be attracting the top students … and it certainly has always helped to do that,” Collins said.

The plethora of prestigious national scholarships and awards that Honors College students have received and the University’s new status as an R1 research institution in 2016 are both a real testament to Collins’ statement. As the Honors College grows, its continuity as a place of comfort and connections rings true, always reminding students of the opportunities the University has to offer them, but also more importantly, the potential that resides within themselves.

Dr. Collins Today

Dr. Collins’ time at WVU was spent in a variety of roles across the institution. His work with the Honors Program established a solid foundation for what the Honors College is today. He and his wife, Karen, now enjoy retirement in a community and golf resort known as Fairfield Glade in Tennessee.

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