Fifty years of Honors at SU

The Renee Crown Honors program, founded by English literature chairwoman Mary Marshall in 1963, celebrates 50th Anniversary this year.

Stephen Kuusisto, director of Syracuse University's Renèe Crown Honors Program, isn't going to argue that you need to be in his program to have a top-flight academic experience at SU.

“You can come out of Syracuse as a physics major and never enroll in the college program, and graduate summa cum laude, do Phi Beta Kappa and have a great undergraduate intellectual experience,” he said.

Conversations with a professor in Renee Crown will hop from one intellectual lily pad to the next. Before even discussing Renee Crown, Kuusisto launched into discussion ranging from Neil Postman's book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, to fermented mare's milk in Uzbekistan to an analogy on how Ohio's cities are like 15th century Italian city-states. Much of what he's learned has influenced what he demands from students.

“What's a public intellectual? It's a pesky contrarian!” Kuusisto said with an exuberant delivery not unlike a comedian's. “It's a good thing to learn about: how to be a pesky contrarian in your own life.”

Kuusisto shows enthusiasm for every class he describes in the program and believes it is the type of people like himself, the self-proclaimed “idea addicts,” who fit virtuously within Renèe Crown.

“[Crown] offers students who have enthusiasm and imagination extra opportunities to explore the creative arts, or writing, or research, or architecture, or philosophy, or whatever your discipline is,” Kuusisto said. “It gives you an additional platform to work on the things that fascinate you.”

The 2013-14 school year marks the 50th, anniversary of the program, which Kuusisto calls a “unique creation.” Founded by English literature chairwoman Mary Marshall in 1963, this program was a cut above from the beginning: Honors students were granted access to exclusive stacks in the library, saw plays and modern art galleries free of charge and worked in Syracuse's urban community at a time when most other students remained on the hill.

Today’s estimated 900 students in the program find these benefits have been modernized and expanded: small, focused courses in the range of eight to 15 students, hands-on field trips far-off areas, a strong, committed advising staff to develop personalized tactics to help attain career-starting fellowships and Fulbright and Truman scholarships.

Dana Froome, an undeclared sophomore in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, said she's happy to have smaller class sizes, where things like raising your hand isn't so awkward.

"Since these classes are smaller, I get to know my professor, almost one-on-one," she said."

Where others had to submit applications, magazine junior Jill Comoletti caught the attention of the program during her first semester on campus, and was asked to join for the spring semester. For Comoletti, the small comforts of honors, such as early application for courses and a private study lounge, help her maintain focus for her Capstone project, a required endeavor for all Renèe Crown scholars.

The Capstone project is “the culmination of multiple semesters of research and/or creative work in one of their majors,” according to the program's website. Beyond that, students and faculty view its completion as an academic badge of pride. The courses students take over four years contribute to the final product, and add dimensions from all fields of learning.

“It is fundamentally interdisciplinary because the honors students are in classes with architects, engineers, history majors,” said Kate Hanson, assistant director of Scholarship and Fellowship Preparation for RenèCrown. “It's a really nice way for students to be in upper-level work.”
As storied its past is, the program looks forward to growing its endowment so that it can be used to benefit intellectuals across the campus. The program has “confident goals,” Kuusisto said, including helping students pay for study abroad, earn more internships and building “facility support” for the honors community and any other who wishes to use their vast resources. 

“One of the things that we want to do is help all students at SU who have ambition and curiosity. You don't have to belong to the Renèe Crown Honors Program to make use of the resources that we have,” Kuusisto said. “The honors program is not a college, but it's a program that creates a kind of connected, spirited, cooperative environment where students get along.”

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