By Ben Kleppinger
When Letitia Howard came to Eastern to check out the honors program, she got a chance to soak up some culture as well. Bonnie Gray, the honors program director, took Howard and her mom on an honors trip to a play in Louisville.Afterwards, Howard said she knew the honors program was where she wanted to be. But she hit a snag when she failed to score high enough on her ACT.
“I flipped out. I just cried. I thought, ‘this is it; I’m not gonna be able to do it,'” she said.
But Gray didn’t reject Howard, even when a second attempt at the ACT didn’t yield better results. Instead, Gray let Howard into the honors program.
Howard said she ran into Gray again, who still remembered her name and her mother’s name, a year after she joined the program.
Howard is one of hundreds of honors students at Eastern, many of whom have similar stories about the kindness and friendliness of Gray.
Gray, who has been the honors program director since its beginnings 20 years ago, plans to retire at the end of May.
Eastern was the last university in the state to create an honors program, Gray said. When the program began in 1988, it had 36 students and no classrooms. Classes met in the basement of Sullivan Hall, and the operating budget was in the tens of thousands.
Today, the Eastern Honors Program is recognized as one of the best in the nation. It has more than 600 students, a $1 million endowment and is routinely one of the most active programs at the annual National Collegiate Honors Conference.
Bruce MacLaren, a professor who has been involved with the program since it began, said the curriculum has played a big part in making honors at Eastern what it is today.
Before the program began, professors gathered for weeks at a time over the summer to meet with experts and brainstorm about how to create the most effective honors general education curriculum. Faculty also attended Eastern classes as “master learners,” some of them even taking the tests and doing the homework.
MacLaren said Gray never tried to tell the faculty what to do during the brainstorming sessions.
“The faculty had the right to create what they saw as being good,” he said. The result was the curriculum that the program still uses today.
Incoming freshmen take honors rhetoric, a six-hour course that examines philosophy and logic through historical literature. After rhetoric comes honors world civilization I and II, and honors humanities I and II, which are designed to complement each other by examining the same historical periods at the same time.
After completing those first five courses, honors students take an honors science course and an honors junior elective. Finally, every student who graduates with honors completes their senior thesis-a project they develop themselves with the help of a faculty mentor.
There are now more than 300 faculty members on campus who have been an honors senior thesis mentor, Gray said.
David Sefton has mentored numerous senior theses, and is also well known among honors students for teaching world civilization I and II with MacLaren. Sefton is retiring at the end of this semester, as well.
Jessika Vance, a psychology major and honors student who is graduating this semester, said Sefton has been a reservoir of assurance for her since her very first day in.
“I was low in confidence and just scared to death,” she said. Sefton recognized her situation and continually offered her support, she said.
This semester, Vance has been preparing to get married and graduate-a combination she said is very stressful.
Vance said she remembers one day when something was going wrong with her wedding plans and she went to Sefton’s office in a moment of distress.
“I just remember wanting to cry, but then sitting in front of him I really didn’t feel like I had anything to actually cry about,” she said.
Jacqueline Wolford is in her first semester as an honors student, and said she appreciates Sefton’s teaching techniques.
“His love for what he does really shines through,” she said. “He always goes the extra mile to make sure you understand what you’re learning.”
Sefton said being able to teach honors students in a small classroom setting is an incredible opportunity.
Sefton has taught world civilization with MacLaren for eight years. He has been in the History Department at Eastern for 23 years. When he isn’t teaching, he said he likes to “rummage around in the seventh and eighth centuries.”
Sefton said working with students is a privilege he doesn’t take lightly.
“If you do not think that working with students is the best thing you can do with your life, you need to find another job,” he said. “You guys create your futures here, and to be even a tiny part of that, that’s great stuff. It really is.”
MacLaren describes what he and Sefton do in world civilization as “teaching the unwashed who are not pre-set, pre-programmed.” He said he doesn’t expect to have “another Sefton” very soon.
“Sefton persuades people they have good brains,” he said.
MacLaren said part of Sefton’s success in affecting students is thanks to the teaching freedom Gray offers him.
“I think he developed a joy that’s grown from the freedom,” he said. “Bonnie has never suggested that we not do what we thought was appropriate.”
Eastern Student Body President David Fifer said he owes Gray a lot. Gray let Fifer into the program despite a low GPA. And the honors courses “woke me up to the ideas I tried to act on as student body president,” he said. “Some could say that Dr. Gray was responsible for my political career.”
MacLaren said Gray is a kind and just leader, who truly cares about students.
“She laughs as well as anyone I know,” he said.
Gray will officially retire June 1. She said she is heading to her cottage in New York June 2 for a “four-month summer,” including boating, swimming and working in the garden her mother started.
“With Miracle-Gro, it’s amazing what you can produce with less than a green thumb,” she said.
As for Sefton, he said he’s not going to set any plans in stone.
“The one thing my retirement will give me is time,” he said. “It has been immensely rewarding for me to work with you all, and that I will miss badly.