Skip to main content

Our Roots

“To stimulate, encourage, and motivate anyone who desires to improve and excel”

The BYU Honors Program was created in 1960 under the direction of then BYU President Earnest L. Wilkinson and began with just 100 students. He described the Honors Program as “a plan for the cultivation of the best young brain power in the nation.”[1] The broad aim of the program was to model a liberal arts education by emphasizing quality courses taught by dynamic teachers in small classes that would create a sense of community. Interdisciplinary colloquia were the heart of the Honors curriculum from the outset. Today’s program is built on this foundation, and continues a tradition of academic excellence. Many thousands of students have participated in Honors courses, and graduates of the program have increased significantly in number since the first four students graduated in 1963. According to Noel B. Reynolds, a former associated academic vice-president of BYU, the Honors Program has been a major force in the increasing national recognition given to the academic quality of Brigham Young University and its graduates.

Since its early years, the Honors Program has evolved and adapted to changing needs. In the mid 1980’s the Honors Program moved to an open enrollment model. Richard D. Poll, the first Associate Director of the Honors Program, announced the change was implemented so all students with the curiosity, motivation, and persistence could take full advantage of the program’s benefits. Students from all disciplines, majors and backgrounds continue to self-select into the Honors Program, creating a dynamic cohort of motivated undergraduates. As one Honors graduate, now a member of the faculty, puts it, “It’s not so much about graduating with the distinction of University Honors as it is about the process of getting to that point. It is less about the ACT scores and GPAs, and more about the self-selection by students who are interested in learning in a different kind of way than their peers.”

In the 1970s, the Honors Program curriculum moved away from the original interdisciplinary colloquia to a “Multi-departmental Program” offering a combination of honors sections of departmental courses around campus and Honors seminars taught on specialized topics. Over the years the program has included a variety of colloquia, seminars, writing courses, and unique courses proposed by faculty. In 1981 the program formally adopted a thesis requirement and the “Great Works” program, with more than 100 titles on the Honors reading list.

In 2014, the Honors Program once again adapted to changing demands on resources and the need to better prepare students for the increasingly diverse and connected world in which we live. The Program transitioned away from the Great Works model, returning to our roots in broader, interdisciplinary inquiry. Living up to its long-standing role as the testing ground for new and innovative ideas, the program launched a new series of “Unexpected Connections” courses. Through coursework, research, writing, and hands-on experiences, students explore interdisciplinary approaches and consider ways in which unexpected connections can be found between different disciplines, leading to a deeper understanding of the questions we seek to answer and the problems we seek to solve. A more unified, cohesive core of Honors courses replaced what had become a widely dispersed and disparate offering of electives. The Honors thesis continues to be the culminating Honors experience.

Housed in the historic Karl G. Maeser building, today the Honors Program mentors over 1,200 students. Nearly 35 years later, the words of Dr. Poll still ring true: “The accolade ‘Honors’ has never been more widely coveted and the program has never touched the entire university community more demonstrably than it does today.”

[1] Hansen, Kristine. A History of the Brigham Young University Honors Program: The First Fifty Years. BYU Honors Program, 2012. Provo: Brigham Young University Press. Print. This brief summary borrows heavily from Professor Hansen’s monograph. Dr. Hansen herself was a dedicated Honors faculty member for nearly 30 years.