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Why Honors Programs Are More Than Global Partying
/ March 27, 2014

Between their reputations as a free travel ticket and an exercise in money-wasting, NYU honors programs like CAS Presidential Honors Scholars have been somewhat under fire lately. The notable evidence certainly doesn’t help–particularly when it’s drunken pictures of spring breaks spent galavanting through Buenos Aries and Florence.

But other things happen there, too. Since honors theses and research grant proposals maybe aren’t as Instagram-worthy as the time you blacked out in a foreign country, we talked to faculty, staff, and honors students to get their perspective on why the programs’ study abroad components are more than just partying.

Leora Rosenberg, a junior in CAS who went to Buenos Aires last year, told us about experiences like “a night at a tango club, a boat ride through Parana’s delta, a ballet performance, and fancy meals with more steak than I had ever seen in my life.” Rosenberg continued, “The trips may seem like a waste of money, but NYU’s business model requires convincing students that being here is fun and glamorous enough to be worth the outrageous tuition.”“The opportunity to get flown across the world for an all-expenses-paid trip is part of what makes the school so attractive,” she says. It is particularly attractive to academically talented students who may not otherwise choose NYU, Rosenberg emphasized, and those students “then improve the school’s academic quality for everyone.”

Sasha Kazachkova, a freshman in CAS who went to Florence with the scholars program this year, agreed. “NYU is willing to spend all the money in the world on the people they think will make their name more valuable. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” she argued.

But Yuwen Cheng, a CAS sophomore who went to Buenos Aires with the scholars program this year, emphasized that the program is not just a series of weeklong parties: “The program really incorporated a lot of academic experiences.”

Some of those experiences are challenging, like the visits to detention camps in Buenos Aires and Prague that students undertake in order to better understand those cities’ bloody histories. Meanwhile, other trips, like those to Accra and Paris, involve a service component. Cheng concluded, “If people go with an open mind to learn, everything you encounter there becomes a valuable experience.”

Perhaps Rayne Holm, a Gallatin sophomore, summarized student responses best: “It seems stupid to hold drinking or going out to party while on these trips, after a full day of academic material, against the students. It’s what you’d do at home in New York, right?”

Rebecca Hernandez-Gerber, who is currently working toward a master’s degree at Tisch, feels differently. “I just don’t think they’re a good use of money,” she told NYU Local. “Most people in this school, if their parents aren’t rich, graduate six figures in debt. There’s plenty more students that won’t attend this school because they can’t ever afford to pay it back. It seems incredibly unfair for NYU to lavish money on vacations for a select few students, programs that are generally unavailable to graduate students by the way, instead of [using] it to bring disadvantaged students in.”

Becky Del, a member of the equivalent honors program called the Dean’s Circle in Liberal Studies, explained that the program actually functions to promote socioeconomic diversity in study abroad at NYU. “The cost of living in London, which is the only site that offers courses in my major, and the distance, are too extreme for my circumstances,” the Liberal Studies sophomore told us. “When I found out I’d be funded to go for a week, I was thrilled.” Del continued, “I don’t see why scholars programs should be regarded as anything other than a merit based scholarship.”

Associate Dean for Students Richard Kalb rejected the premise that the money used for the scholars program was costly to financial aid. “The money for this program does not come out of financial aid. If anything, it’s a form of financial aid in that it is an equal-opportunity experience,” he said. “Funding this kind of scholarly work and opportunities for our best students is consistent with NYU’s goals as a global network university. It connects the students who excel here with resources all around the world. In that sense, it’s like financial aid, because it is all about connecting students with resources.” Besides, he added, “The funding of this program is minuscule compared to the overall financial aid budget.”

CAS Dean Gabrielle Starr noted that program directors are still acutely aware of financial concerns. “We do offer enhanced financial aid to make this possible for students with demonstrated financial need, and are actively expanding these possibilities, including special Dean’s Opportunity funds in CAS, which are open to all students in CAS with demonstrated need.”

Professor Lourdes Dávila, who leads a CAS sophomore honors seminar that includes a trip to Buenos Aires, explained that from the faculty perspective, “this program is anti-elitist, if anything. This program is a way of giving back to students. Faculty are not paid to run this program they way they are for courses. We consider it part of our service to the university.” She also added that admissions to the scholars program are extremely open. In addition to the initial group of freshmen whose high school record gives them access to the program, CAS allows any student to apply into the program, and Dávila herself has connected sophomores declaring their major in her department with the opportunity to apply into the program even after that first year. “We are alert to identifying all qualified students, from all walks of life,” she said.

But two major concerns remain: the $500 fee asked of scholars to participate in the program, as well as the general gripe that the money used to fund the program could be better spent as financial aid. The former is at least partially mitigated by the fact that the fee is waived all the time for students who cannot afford to pay.

As for the perennial assertion that any expense by NYU must be viewed in light of its potential to be otherwise used as financial aid, that attitude is simply misguided, and requires a little more explanation.

As both Kalb and Dávila explained when they sat down with us, donors assign objectives when they give money to the university. Undergraduate research attracts particular donors, and that is how the DURF grant and the scholars program are made available in CAS. Money cannot hop around — it’s allocated specifically to align with donors’ desires. That’s why NYU is currently pursuing its first big campaign for donations specific to financial aid.

After all the tango and malbec, perhaps the simplest way to learn more about the actual academic value of honors programs is to engage with honors students in action–after all, they’re students here too.

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