The Next Level: TJC Honors Program raises the stakes on academic performance

Jan 08, 2014 by

With a beefed-up curriculum, scholarship incentives and a new director, the Tyler Junior College Honors Program is attracting more of the area’s best and brightest students.

The task of creating the advanced learning environment fell into the hands of one of TJC’s newest professors, T.J. McLemore.

“I literally signed my grad thesis and drove down here the same week and started teaching,” McLemore said of his hasty introduction to TJC.

McLemore began teaching courses at TJC in 2011 after graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from Boston University.

Within a year, TJC administrators approached McLemore to reinvigorate the TJC Honors Program. He had experience with a similar program as an undergrad at Baylor, but running a program – essentially from the ground up – was a new experience.

“That’s how it usually goes with academics,” he said. “You learn it, and I had to learn it fast.”

The honors program was going through a period of transition, he said, and it suffered from a lack of visibility, support and students.

With a new directive and increased support from TJC President Dr. Mike Metke and Vice Presidents Dr. Kimberly Russell and Dr. Charles Florio, the program got the push it needed.

“They were able to restructure the college’s scholarships and breathe life into the program,” he said. “I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.”

With a clear mission for the program came financial incentive for students: full-ride scholarships.

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Hannah Shipley (left), a first-year student from Lindale, credits the intimate class sizes and help from her peers as the biggest benefits of the TJC Honors Program. Pictured with Shipley is T.J. McLemore, program director.

Anyone who graduates in the top 10 percent of their class is qualified for a full scholarship that covers tuition and fees.

There are currently 170 students in the honors program, many of whom live in their own living and learning community on the third floor of the Ornelas Residential Complex.

“Part of our mission statement is to bring these students here and show the community and the state that this is a place of serious academic inquiry and performance,” McLemore said.

Students in the honors program run the gamut in majors and fields of study, but they all take classes with smaller sizes – in many cases less than 15 students – and the coursework is more rigorous.

“They’re doing harder work, and they’re doing more work,” McLemore said. “A lot of times the students will say it’s easier than their other courses because they’re getting such great interaction with their peers and faculty.”

McLemore says the goal is to provide a high-quality, rigorous, interdisciplinary and holistic educational experience, similar to what a student would receive at a small four-year college.

“I think most people coming out of high school right now are unprepared. Even honor students are not prepared to be honor students,” McLemore said. “They have to be made into honor students. We have to really challenge them.
“We have to say, ‘you’re smart, but let’s take it to the next level.’”

One of those students taking things to the next level is Hannah Shipley, a freshman Apache Belle and honors student.

Shipley, a 2013 graduate of Lindale High School, began her college career with almost 40 credit hours under her belt.

“I’m technically a sophomore,” she said.

Shipley said the intimate classes and help from her peers are the biggest benefits of the honors program.

“You have other professors who are specifically with the honors program; so if you ever need help with a class or help with writing, they’re always there if you need them,” she said. “You have a real personal connection.”

In addition to the living and learning environment, the honors program has its own study lounge on the third floor of Rogers Student Center.

“We can go up there and study and make coffee and help each other with work, because a lot of us are in the same classes,” Shipley said.

“We get to be our own little group and help each other out.”

Shipley, an international studies major, plans to transfer after she finishes her time as an Apache Belle. Her short list includes the University of North Texas, The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M.

When Shipley transfers, she’ll be a part of a growing list of TJC students who go on to competitive, four-year institutions.

“We transferred a student to the UT Tyler honors program, and we’ve transferred a couple of students to UT Austin,” McLemore said.

“We sent one to Baylor on a full scholarship last year. We’ve already seen some great students here and had some success stories, and we are going to see a lot more in the coming years.”

The smaller class size helps keep the honors program operating at a healthy level without being overloaded with students. After this year, the program will have close to 250 students, which McLemore says is plenty big.

“My hope would be that a lot of them, through the program, will learn to view the world in a more whole way, that they’ll be more well-rounded people,” McLemore said.

“Part of my goal for the program is that it simulates a liberal arts environment, where there’s this ferment of ideas and questions are being asked, and they’re challenging their perceived traditions, they’re challenging our societal assumptions, they’re challenging their own assumptions.”

For more information about the TJC Honors Program, visit tjc.edu/honors or contact the honors office at 903-510-2895.
Allen Arrick is TJC multimedia content producer.


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Fall 2013, Features

About the author

Allen Arrick is Tyler Junior College's Online Multimedia Content Producer. He can be reached at 903-510-2526 or at aarr@tjc.edu