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PSU expands Urban Honors program

$1 million in grants, and word of mouth, help fuel growth


Tristan Weitkamp, a Portland State University student who graduated last month with honors, recently went to Nicaragua with the honors program.

“I went ... to study the effects of globalization and also to look at sustainability in the Third World,” Weitkamp said. “We worked on a school in a rural community and helped lay brick and mix cement.”

Portland State University’s Urban Honors program has grown so much in the past two years that the school expanded the program into its own college last April.

According to Ann Marie Fallon, the director of the honors program and associate professor of humanities and international studies, the program has grown 260 percent over the past two years.

“We’ve also really revamped our curricular focus in the past two years,” Fallon said. “(By) rethinking our traditional focus on research, with a particular focus on ‘Urban Honors,’ and really connecting undergraduates with the urban research opportunities PSU excels in offering.”

It’s a rigorous program through and through. If a student’s GPA falls under 3.25, they are out of the program and must bring their grades back up before they can reapply.

Fallon thinks the growth is due to getting the word out about the program. The program snagged 17 local valedictorians this year. About 33 percent of the students are from other states and about 30 percent are the first in their family to go to college.

It includes about 600 students now, after receiving $1 million in grants from the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust in 2012.

“I regard helping PSU to elevate its honors program to University Honors College status as one of the most significant things the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust has done in the 27 years I have served as a trustee,” said Milo Ormseth, a Tucker trustee.

The grant helped the program expand its internships, research and scholarships and to build a new urban ecology lab.

The honors college is particularly proud of former students Tiffany Morrison and Teresa Mau. Morrison worked a paid internship with the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., before going to medical school in Philadelphia, and Mau became the first person to sequence and synthesize spider RNA.

To apply to the honors college, students must have a 3.5 GPA and score more than 1,200 in critical reading and math on the SAT or 26 on the ACT. Rather than attending large lectures, honors students attend classes capped at 20 to 25 students.

The required classes follow a different curriculum, including writing a thesis and travel opportunities. Weitkamp’s thesis researches the local jazz economy, since he is a saxophone player who performs at venues around town.

Kelly Hess, an honors student who recently interned with Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, is looking at grad school. According to Hess, the honors college originally was geared toward preparing students for grad school.

“I’m looking at congressional work in the future, but I don’t want to go to law school,” Hess said. “I actually have an internship with Sen. (Jeff) Merkley this summer.”