Dean of University of Maine’s Honors College, Charlie Slavin knows first hand how private support from alumni and friends can provide students with extraordinary learning opportunities.
Donations from individuals have been used to endow two popular and informative Honors courses: “Currents and Contexts,” in which students explore current local, national and international problems and issues, and “A Cultural Odyssey,” which focuses on the campus’ many cultural events including art shows, poetry readings and musical performances.
Private gifts funded renovations to the first floor of Colvin Hall, one of two Honors residences, to re-establish the Thomson Honors Center which consists of classrooms, a library, reading rooms and administrative offices.
Individual contributions also support the “Honors Read” initiative, where incoming Honors College students are provided with a book chosen each year by current Honors College students. The text, which the new students read during the summer, serves to introduce them to the Honors curriculum and becomes the basis for class discussions over their two-year “Civilizations” sequence.
Finally, private gifts provide travel opportunities for Honors College students including an annual Spring Break trip to Washington, D.C., and the National Collegiate Honors Council’s annual national conference.
“Many of my colleagues around the country are envious that we are able to bring 24 students to the Council each year — all on the basis of private giving,” says Charlie.
He himself is an ardent supporter of the Honors College, as well as other UMaine initiatives and programs, not only because he knows his gifts make a difference to students’ education, but also because he believes he has an obligation to contribute.
“My feelings about philanthropy come from an understanding of my place in the world and the things I have the ability to do. There are issues in the world that need to be addressed and, those of us who have the ability need to make efforts in those directions.”
Also prompting his support are the strong feelings he holds about the critical role the University plays in the state of Maine.
“I’m committed to the work we’re doing here. Public higher education is a vital part of society’s fabric and providing access to that education is important.”
Charlie started out at UMaine in 1984 as a math professor, but decided to switch gears and become involved with Honors 11 years ago when it was still the Honors Program. One of the oldest such programs in the country, it transitioned into the Honors College in 2002; the College now has approximately 650 students and involves more than 100 faculty from all five degree-granting colleges.
A number of reasons prompted Charlie’s move to Honors. First, he liked its emphasis on interdisciplinary studies. Early in his UMaine career, he had participated in a multi-disciplinary collaborative project that included 24 faculty members from art to zoology. And, over the years, he continued to be intrigued by the idea of bringing people together from different perspectives, disciplines and professions to engage in imaginative and exciting conversations.
“Interdisciplinary work is all about bringing multiple perspectives to important questions and ideas,” he says.
He also liked the idea that Honors students were required to conduct in-depth research on a topic related to their major and then write a thesis. “Having written a thesis as an undergraduate, I understood what a transforming experience it could be. Often for the first time, the thesis student takes ownership of a substantial research question or creative challenge, and brings it to fruition. This is particularly rewarding for undergraduates, and often sets the tone for their future endeavors.”
As a member of about a dozen thesis committees each year, he also learns something new. “Each year I’m reading theses and then engaging in conversations with students doing poetry, biochemistry, education, engineering and more. These students have produced impressive work in their disciplines, and I get to learn about things I’ve never even heard about before. I learn so much more from my students than they ever learn from me.”
The Honors College enables students to broaden and deepen their undergraduate education by going beyond the boundaries of their discipline, exploring diverse academic areas, and challenging each other in a supportive intellectual environment, Charlie says.
“English majors read about quantum auto mechanics and engineering students read Dante and it’s important that we do that. Intellectual risk taking is what makes Honors so exciting.”
And, because students – and faculty — are involved only because they want to be, “the energy level and interest in the Honors College is high.”
For many students, Charlie says, the Honors College experience ends up changing their lives as they “look at lots of different texts, ideas and critical perspectives and think deeply about them.
“We see incredible differences in students between the time they enter the Honors College and the time they graduate. They mature both intellectually and in a worldly sense; so much of education happens outside of the classroom. I’m lucky that I often get to see students over this entire journey.”
The Honors College has made astounding progress since it began over seven decades ago with a handful of students, and Charlie hopes it will continue to evolve. His plans include renovating Balentine Hall, another Honors residence; implementing a math/science sequence in the Honors curriculum; and establishing more travel opportunities and thesis fellowships for Honors students.
“There are a lot of things to be worked on. We’ve done some really cool stuff since becoming a college in 2002, but there are always new challenges; that’s what makes my job so much fun. We’re looking forward to our 75th anniversary in 2010 – stay tuned for more changes aimed to benefit our students.”
The Honors College isn’t Charlie’s only focus. Spending time with his wife, Nancy, and five-year-old son, Sam, whom they adopted from Kazakhstan, also are priorities for the busy administrator.
“Sam is a great little guy, he’s a lot of fun,” says Charlie. “Since he’s only been in the U.S. for a short time, he’s still figuring things out and exploring things that are new to him, but that aren’t new to a child who’s grown up here. That makes for an experience that’s exciting, sometimes challenging, and always rewarding.”Posted in News