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The Table, the Garden, and the Storm: The J. N. Andrews Honors Program and the Future of Higher Education

The Table, the Garden, and the Storm: The J. N. Andrews Honors Program and the Future of Higher Education

This article appears in the most recent issue of the Spectrum journal (Volume 51, issue 2). It contains photos that adds to the reading experience. Click here to view the images.

When you enter the office of the J. N. Andrews Honors Program, the first thing you see is a small table, dominated by a hot water urn and filled to bursting with colorful packets of tea, shiny envelopes of hot chocolate, and usually at least one bowl of trail mix or pretzels. Sometimes there are sunshiny clementines, or an assortment of apples, or crackers and crumbly chunks of cheese. Chances are there’s at least one student hovering at this table, an overstuffed backpack on the ground at their feet, loading up on snacks before rushing to their next class. The table is way station and welcome and destination all in one. It’s by far the smallest of the three tables in the Honors office, dwarfed by the round table tucked into the back corner and the long table in the adjoining conference room, where study groups meet and upperclassmen help freshmen with their final papers. But to me—and, I suspect, to many other past and present students in Andrews University’s Honors program—that first little table is the most important.

For Dr. L. Monique Pittman, director for the last sixteen years, the table represents the tangible, practical work of hospitality, work that for her is central, not just to the Honors program but also to the project of Adventist higher education as a whole. “We learn best when our needs are cared for,” she says. “It’s a spirit of abundance—one that says: be assured. You are loved absolutely, your needs are attended to, and I hope you will do that for others in turn.”

Pittman is also a professor in the English department, where she recently taught a class on epic. She and her students returned repeatedly to a theme that she’s now writing about in her scholarship: radical hospitality. “Our model for hospitality comes to us from Homer,” she says. When Odysseus is on his travels, she explains, people don’t meet him and immediately demand he share his story. Instead they offer him a meal, clean clothes, a place to stay. Then, and only then, once the guest feels welcome and safe, do they share their story.

“Hospitality manifests in very material ways: food and drink,” she says. Providing for students’ physical needs is a constant priority for her and the other members of the Honors team. It’s why the student officers spend hours shopping for and preparing beautiful, enormous spreads for the Agape Feast, which happens each semester and is open to everyone regardless of whether or not they’re an Honors student. It’s why Pittman keeps track of individuals’ dietary restrictions and allergies, and why she invites her entire Literature and the Arts class to her house for a dinner made with vegetables from her garden and served on painted china. It’s why, when I interviewed administrative assistant and recruiter Maxine Umana, it seemed like half of our conversation was concerned with the logistics of keeping that snack table well-stocked: acquiring lids for cups, ordering new flavors of tea, dealing with the hot water urn’s gradual breakdown. “My goal,” Umana says, “is to make the office a safe place—a welcoming place—for them.”

When I ask Umana what the great challenge of her time working for the Honors program has been, she doesn’t hesitate. “The pandemic changed things a lot,” she says.

Pittman agrees. “The three years of COVID,” she says, “attacked the core things we care about: in-person learning and belonging.”

* * *

While the COVID-19 pandemic was undoubtedly a paradigm-shifting crisis for every aspect of society, it hit higher education particularly hard. Like a tide washing in and then retreating, leaving detritus scattered across the beach, the pandemic exposed problems that had been plaguing higher education for years.

For several years, experts have been warning of the looming demographic cliff: a significant decrease in university-age students starting around 2025, resulting from the permanent drop in American birth rates following the 2008 financial crisis. Economist Nathan Grawe predicts that in many states, demand for four-year universities may drop by seven to fifteen percent.[1]  Small, liberal arts-focused universities without elite reputations will likely be the most affected.

During the pandemic, universities struggled to keep the students they did have engaged—or even enrolled. Why should students take on additional student debt and pay for expensive university educations conducted mostly through a laptop screen? If they were able to return to campus at all, what was the point, if all of the parties, extracurriculars, and general camaraderie that make university so meaningful were stripped away? Would they be better served by taking a year or two off from school—or dropping out altogether?

At the same time, the pandemic highlighted economic inequality. Most white-collar office workers found themselves working from home and sentenced to endless Zoom meetings, while artists and performers were suddenly out of work. For essential workers—whether they bagged groceries or performed complex brain surgeries—working from home wasn’t an option. More than ever, people questioned the value and resiliency of their chosen career path—and the steps that had brought them there.

As Nathan Heller notes in his New Yorker article “The End of the English Major,” humanities degrees have been in crisis for a while. “Since 2013, the study of English and history has dropped by a third,” he writes. “The number of STEM degrees, meanwhile, is soaring.” The irony of this trend, Heller argues, is that while STEM degrees are more appealing and lucrative initially, the pandemic has only highlighted the need for more humanities-trained citizens in the future. People who can empathize with diverse groups of people, communicate ideas clearly and effectively, and think critically are incredibly important in times of prolonged social instability and crisis like the pandemic. “Career studies have shown that humanities majors, with their communication and analytical skills, often end up in leadership jobs,” he writes. “To that extent, the value of the educated human touch is likely to hold in a storm of technological and cultural change.”[2]

Finally, especially in the United States, the pandemic—concurrent as it was with the final year of the controversial presidency of Donald Trump—highlighted ever-deepening political and cultural divisions in the United States. After relative unity of opinion and action in the pandemic’s early weeks, fierce debates about masking, social distancing, and vaccinations sharply divided the nation. Underlying these debates were larger questions about epistemology, expertise, and what it means to love thy neighbor. For some, the inequality and injustice thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic were calls to action. Social movements like #BlackLivesMatter led to many universities promising to diversify their curriculums and commit to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on campus. Unsurprisingly, these social movements met with swift backlash. “Critical Race Theory” became a catch-all boogeyman for many right wing politicians and pundits, and an April 2023 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that twelve states have introduced legislation banning the use of diversity statements in higher education.[3]

During the worst of the pandemic, I was a PhD student in English at the University of Colorado Boulder. Even at a university as large, prestigious, and wealthy as CU Boulder, we felt the pandemic’s adverse effects. Outbreaks created by insufficient masking and close living quarters led to constant shifts between in-person and online instruction. Mental health was in shambles. I lost a classmate to suicide, and a mass shooting at a local grocery store in March of 2021 left ten people dead and our entire community badly shaken. As a “temporary pandemic measure,” the English department saw its graduate budget permanently slashed by thirty percent.

COVID-19, and its accompanying effects, often felt like an enormous wave that crashed, and crashed, and crashed against us. During those darkest pandemic days, I spent a lot of time living in my memories. Scrolling through old photos of visits to Shakespeare plays, or texting former classmates, my thoughts often lingered on Andrews. Sometimes it barely felt like we were holding it together at CU Boulder. How was my beloved Honors program weathering this storm?

* * *

The J. N. Andrews Honors Program is the oldest honors program in Adventist higher education. For almost as long as there has been an Andrews University, there has been an Honors program in some form.

In 1960, the Berrien Springs, Michigan-based Emmanuel Missionary College added several graduate programs and the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, becoming Andrews University. With the new name came an increased interest in research, both on the graduate and undergraduate levels. According to a 2008 Focus article by Dr. Meredith Jones Gray, music department chair Dr. Paul E. Hamel attended a session on honors programs at a higher education conference in Chicago.[4] He returned excited about the idea of undergraduate honors study—and President Richard L. Hammill agreed. After committee study, Andrews University announced the 1967-68 school year would include the possibility of honors study. Hammill later reflected that supporting the creation of an honors program was “one of the things I did at Andrews University of which I am the most proud.”

Though Hamel had been the genesis of the idea, he had other commitments that prevented him from directing the newly created Honors program. Instead, the president appointed English professor Merlene A. Ogden as director of The Society of Honors Scholars. It proved to be a historic choice. Ogden was director for twenty-five years, shepherding many students through the program who would go on to teach at Andrews themselves—including, perhaps most notably, Pittman.

Under Ogden’s direction, students began doing independent undergraduate research, which they then had to present to their peers. In December 1969, senior home economics major Maryellen Hutchinson surveyed 122 undergraduate women at Andrews and presented primary research titled: “A Study of the Relationship Between General Personal Values and Clothing Attitudes Within a Specific Sub-Group.”

That spring, Hutchinson and twenty of her peers graduated with Honors designations in a class of 268 undergraduates—around eight percent of the student body. In the decades that followed, that number seems to have remained remarkably steady. When I graduated from Andrews in May of 2015, I was one of twenty-one students who graduated with the Honors distinction in a total undergraduate class of 269.[5]

Under Ogden’s directorship, students could enroll in special Honors sections of general education courses: Honors Biology, Honors Composition, and so on. They also conducted independent research, and they took part in intellectual and social gatherings as well, including symposiums discussing music and poetry, field trips to Chicago to visit museums and attend concerts, and an Honors banquet.

Author Trudy J. Morgan-Cole attended Andrews from 1983 to 1986, where she double majored in English and history and earned a secondary teaching certification. Joining the Honors program, she says, was “a no-brainer.” “I was always up for anything that would be an interesting intellectual challenge”—and as an Honors student she got to spend months doing independent, focused research. She vividly recalls working on her capstone project in which she compared Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I to the chronicles of Henry V’s youth. “I absolutely loved that research,” she says, “and in many ways it set the pattern for a lot of my later interests. I’ve always been intrigued by the intersections between history and fiction—and I now write historical fiction.”

As the Honors program thrived, Ogden filled an incredible array of administrative roles while also working as director. Between 1977 and 1991, she served as assistant, then associate, then full dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Even in 1991, she was the only woman in Andrews University higher administration. In 1991, she left administration of the College of Arts and Sciences to become dean of the Affiliation and Extension Programs, a role she maintained until her retirement in 2004. While Ogden worked tirelessly and is consistently remembered as an incredible teacher, supporter, and cheerleader for her faculty and students, she eventually decided to cede the role of Honors director to someone who could attend to it more fully.

In 1994, economics and history professor Malcolm Russell took over as director. Russell served until 2003, when he left Andrews to accept a position at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was under Russell’s leadership that the current curriculum, the SAGES curriculum (Scholars’ Alternative General Education Studies), was developed. Russell wanted to go beyond providing a handful of Honors alternatives, imagining a program emphasizing “more discussion and writing; more emphasis on analysis than on facts; and fewer multiple choice tests,” he says. After he served as the Walter Utt Professor at Pacific Union College from 1999–2000, “we gained the vision of a separate Honors general education track, and within two years, it was operational.” Russell was succeeded by biology professor Dr. Gordon Atkins, who implemented the SAGES curriculum and served until 2007. The fall 2007 issue of Focus includes a small article announcing that English professor Pittman, who had been teaching in the Honors program since her hiring in 1999, would be taking over as director—a role she still cherishes today.

It was this Honors program, with Pittman at the helm, that I learned about at a high school preview weekend in April 2011. In a 2020 promotional video, Pittman describes the Honors program in terms nearly identical to those I heard about that afternoon: “Honors at Andrews has three component parts: you’ve got a set of classes that you take in place of regular general education courses; we have a really robust social activities component that’s led by our student leaders; and then we have the capstone experience in Honors, which is the Honors thesis.” In other words, I would take small, discussion-based courses in a cohort system, beginning with the entire freshman Honors class journeying together through the full-year, ten-credit Western Heritage. I would get to focus on something I cared about and do real research on it myself. And I would get to do all of this surrounded by students who were as excited about learning as I was.

As soon as I found out that Andrews had an Honors program, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I had thrived academically as a student at my Adventist high school, Kingsway College in Canada, and especially loved getting to read primary texts and analyze them in my English classes. At the same time, I often felt awkward and out of place. I had a small group of close friends, but I still remember the sting of realizing that the entire back row of classmates that I thought of as my friends made fun of me behind my back for being enthusiastic and engaged in our 7:30 a.m. grade 12 English class. I saw Honors as a potential safe haven. I was right.

As a freshman at Andrews, I encountered some students who dismissed the Honors program as elitist or pretentious, but I didn’t care. In my Honors classes, for the first time in my life, I got to feel normal. I fit in. I remember calling my parents, thrilled that my friends in Honors recognized my creativity and my sense of humor, instead of stereotyping me as the nerdy kid.

I was not alone in seeing the program as a place of radical inclusion and belonging. “Students have sometimes told me they felt like ‘outcasts’ or ‘nerds’ at their former schools because they prioritized their studies,” recalls Dr. Beverly Matiko, a professor emerita of English who taught Transcribing the Self (Honors freshman composition) for many years. “Honors students truly love to read, write, study, and learn. How wonderful it is to discover, they say, ‘a bunch of people like me!’”

“I’ve always felt like the Lord knew who my people were,” Pittman muses. “I needed my people—and I pray they need me—because I understand the symptoms of the neurotic academic!” A highlight of everyday life in the program, she says, “is engaging with people who aren’t afraid to be nerds. I have learned so much from talking to my students.”

“Honors was the first place I felt like I belonged,” recalls Dr. Samantha Snively, a former English major who is now the associate director of advancement and executive communications at the University of Washington. “For the first time in my life I was with a group of people who cared about the same things and to a similar degree. I realized there was a whole community of people who were interested in asking hard questions, pursuing big ideas, imagining better worlds, and thinking deeply. I got to stop worrying so much about fitting in and instead had space to flourish into my own person, within the context of a larger community.”

Snively’s former classmate Catherine Tetz puts it more colorfully. “We were little nerdy punks who thought we knew everything but also had a nervous breakdown on a biweekly basis,” she says. “Dr. Pittman loved us anyways.”

Numerous former students emphasize that the coursework was often stressful. High school French teacher Givan Hinds remembers having a “regular two a.m. bedtime to read for Western Heritage.” After making the unusual decision to join the Honors program halfway through his education, choral conductor Jonathan Doram took overloads every semester until graduation in order to balance his music education coursework with Honors classes.

Students who got top grades, whether in public school, Adventist academy, or homeschool classrooms, often found that they weren’t automatically earning As on their Honors assignments. “It was a challenge for me to redefine excellence in my own mind,” Snively recalls. “For the first time, success was dependent upon the quality of your thought rather than your performance or recall ability.”

For my own part, I remember spending more hours and shedding more tears over my Honors coursework than any other part of my undergraduate education. During an interview, I tease Pittman that she was one of the only professors who ever made me cry, not because of anything unkind she said or did, but because she gently but firmly pointed out all the lazy arguments and shortcuts that I took in a paper draft I threw together for her Literature and the Arts class. I was used to my large vocabulary and precocity helping me cut corners. She challenged me to do better.

That sense of challenge—to think deeper and more broadly, to grow even when that growth is painful—was a theme mentioned by every student I interviewed, regardless of the specific professors and courses they named.

And, in each interview, I posed the same question: did you ever regret joining?

Again, the answer was unanimous: absolutely not. “I never regretted joining Honors,” says Dr. Andre Moncrieff, now an ornithology researcher. “Not for a moment.”

* * *

Returning to the Andrews campus almost eight years after I graduated, it is tempting to feel as if no time at all has passed. As I show my husband, Taylor, around, I am startled by how much is exactly as I remember it.

One wall in the rec room in the basement of the campus center is still decoupaged with school newspapers from my years as The Student Movement editor. Lacy green leaves are beginning to appear on the huge willow tree in front of Pioneer Memorial Church, reminding me of the Alice in Wonderland-themed tea party my friends once held in the secret room created by its cascading branches. I even spot a photo of my friends in a tucked-away display case in the English department, so faded by sun and time that we take on the appearance of historical figures.

Perhaps I should be surprised by how easy it all feels, but I’m not. Being here feels like the inevitable culmination of the last six weeks of emails, calls, and video interviews. Since beginning to write this story, I have interviewed forty-eight students, colleagues, and faculty members, past and present. For many of them, our interviews have doubled as an opportunity to reminisce. Ante Jerončić teases me for calling Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy “stupid” in the first week of his Western Heritage class my freshman year. Former Honors president Dr. Randy Sanchez fondly recalls helping plan an event, and I am reminded of his telescoping selfie stick that allowed him to take pictures of the dozens of people in our group when we went on trips to see Shakespeare plays and Broadway musicals in Chicago. I was never close friends with Irene Hwang, who was a couple of years behind me in the program, but as we talk we realize we were at the same transcendent performance by legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman in 2013.

Even when I’m interviewing someone I’ve never met before, I find instant kinship. One of the current Honors students I get to meet is senior Alexander Hess, a lanky young man with fabulous floral loafers and the same hairdo as William Shakespeare. When I briefly explain the roles I occupied as a student at Andrews— Honors scholar, English major, editor for the school newspaper, he laughs with recognition. “Same, same, same,” he says.

And yet, I have to remind myself, these graduating seniors have had a radically different university experience than I did.

Some of my most vivid memories of Honors are of the social outings to see Broadway musicals and operas, Shakespeare plays and orchestra concerts. We would dress to the nines, pile into a bus bound for Chicago, and gorge ourselves on deep-dish pizza or Thai food before that evening’s performance.

Many of the pre-pandemic students I interviewed mention these outings as a highlight, explaining that they helped improve their appreciation for the fine arts and gave them great opportunities to build lasting friendships.

Day-to-day life was also filled with constant socialization and camaraderie. We crowded in shoulder-to-shoulder during the first week’s Honors-palooza to meet the new freshmen and get Shakespeare hand stamps. On Reformation Day, we wrote personal commitments on sticky notes to post on the office door. Musicians and orators came together to sing, play instruments, and provide readings from Scripture and poetry for the annual Honors Church. At the end of each semester, we filled Newbold Auditorium to watch that year’s Western Heritage students comically perform scenes from Richard III and Tartuffe in wacky costumes.

And we shared an abundance of meals. Beyond the ubiquitous snacks on that office table, and the bountiful Agape feasts, there was always so much wonderful food. During the first couple of weeks of the semester, upperclassmen shared dinner with their newly appointed freshman Honors buddies, whom they would mentor throughout their first year. At the end of that school year, all of us crowded into the Honors office again for Worldview Extravaganza, where older students critiqued drafts of first years’ capstone papers while everyone chowed down on box after box of pizza. Of course, there was free food at the research poster sessions and the final Thesis Symposium. And during finals there was always Hoagie Fest: between exams, more than a hundred students would come to the office to build enormous sandwiches and eat them, sitting cross-legged on the floor or out in the hall, reminiscing with friends before summer vacation.

The pandemic stole all of that from the students graduating this year. For most of them, the 2019-2020 school year was their freshman year. They began as a normal cohort, but finished Western Heritage and wrote their worldview papers alone in their respective houses. That year’s seniors arguably had it worse. After three-and-a-half years of anticipation, and an in-person research poster session barely two weeks before the university closed, they defended their thesis projects over Zoom.

In fall of 2020, Andrews University made the decision to return to instruction almost entirely in person—masked, socially distanced, with extensive precautions in place. No one could gather in the Honors office. There were no snacks on the table.

From the beginning, the Honors team showed an enormous commitment to simultaneously maintaining student safety while also creating a sense of community for new and returning students. In August of 2020, Pittman began releasing “Dr. Moe’s Memos”: a series of short, cheerful videos, recorded either in her book-filled home office or in various outdoor locales. In the videos, Pittman delivered words of encouragement, made announcements, and reminded students of upcoming spiritual, academic, and social events (always either masked or outdoors). In her first video, I learned that she individually met with each incoming freshman over video chat during the summer to discuss their plans for their university career. In another, she announced an upcoming movie night in Newbold Auditorium to watch the film adaptation of Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give. “We are trying very hard this fall to have an Honors gathering each month,” she said, “so that we can build a sense of community, even if we cannot do the cultural outings that we’re accustomed to.”

And there was still food, even if the tables had moved outside. Honors buddies picnicked together on the wooden tables between Nethery Hall and Buller Hall. The fall 2020 Agape Feast was held on the grassy lawn between Pioneer Memorial Church and the James White Library. In a video announcing the spring 2021 poster session, Pittman noted regretfully that they still could not serve food, but that each attendee would leave with a special “hospitality bag” filled with treats.

Watching these videos and looking through the photos of those pandemic years, I’m struck by pangs of grief and tenderness: for the students living through the pandemic, and for the immense cheer and bravado that Pittman and the members of the Honors team continually mustered.

I am surprised, then, when the current students I interview barely mention the pandemic. Senior biology major Lauren Butler was the Honors president during the 2020-21 school year. When I ask her what the most challenging aspect of her time in Honors was, however, she mentions grappling with heady questions around the theology of suffering. She doesn’t talk about having to wear a mask to class or plan socially distanced events. For these students—and the entire generation who studied alongside them—this is the only version of university they’ve ever known.

All those community-building efforts, at least, have worked. “I met and formed important relationships with some of my favorite people through Honors!” says senior English major Isabella Koh. “Throughout my college experience, Honors was a place of support and growth, even through the tough times that the pandemic pushed on us.”

* * *

Today, on campus for the Thesis Symposium, it’s easy to forget the pandemic ever happened. There are a few telltale signs—a couple faculty members still wear masks, and the overall number of students and guests is lower. At the 2019 Symposium, thirty students presented their research; today, twenty-three will. But the buzz of nervousness and excitement in the air is the same that I remember—and so are many of the people. Almost as soon as I enter the large atrium of Buller Hall, Pittman sees me and greets me with a shout. She races across the room to greet me with a hug, with Matiko close behind. Soon, I’m waving hello to people I’ve interviewed this month: Umana, Dr. Karl Bailey, Dr. Sonia Badenas. A couple minutes later, my former boss Jones Gray appears, and there’s more hugging and eager conversation. How long have I been here? I just got in an hour ago. What sessions am I going to attend? I haven’t decided yet; they all look so interesting.

I try to hang back and keep out of the way, but they are having none of that. When the group gathers outside in the sunshine for a photo, Matiko pulls me next to her in the second row. I try to guess, based on their formal outfits and nervous expressions, which students are presenting today. In a few short minutes, they will disperse to several classrooms to give presentations on the research projects they’ve been working on for the last two years.

Throughout the Symposium, Pittman is everywhere, all at once. One moment she is talking to a student’s mother, asking questions about the career trajectory of an older sibling who has gone on to graduate school. Seconds later, she darts across the atrium with her camera, insisting on capturing a chemistry professor with his students. She takes photos of two outrageous best friends who have decided to swap personal styles every Friday, and then turns to make sure that a quiet volunteer isn’t too overwhelmed by all the noise. Interspersed with it all are constant exclamations of delight. She laughs, shouts “huzzah!” and offers up a specific compliment or needed affirmation.

It is impossible to talk about the Honors program as it is today without talking about Pittman. “To me, Dr. Pittman was the Honors program,” says Dr. Gretchen Bell, an assistant professor in the Emory University School of Medicine.

This is a common sentiment in almost every interview I conduct. She is “a rockstar,” “the heart of the Honors program,” “an inspiration.” “She taught me not to be afraid of the strength of my own voice,” “believed in me when I didn’t,” and “changed my life.” For anyone who has had the privilege to work with her, Pittman stands out.

Dr. Douglas Jones, professor emeritus of English, remembers teaching Pittman as an undergraduate student at Andrews. “Early on I was impressed by her self-assured manner, her preparation for university study in the arts and letters, and her maturity,” he says.

“It was so clear right away that she was a star student,” remembers Jones Gray, who has been a professor in the English department for more than forty years. “She was diligent, vivacious, and she had this wild perm with a head of hair like this.” Jones Gray holds her hands wide apart on either side of her head, and I laugh. As long as I have known her, Pittman has had a sleek bob without a single hair out of place.

Matiko just missed teaching Pittman. After teaching for nine years at Burman University (formerly Canadian Union College) and Newbold College, the Andrews alum returned to her former department shortly after Pittman graduated and left to earn an MA in English at the College of William and Mary. “I heard so much about her from her professors,” Matiko says, “things like, ‘she is an off-the-charts student’—definitely one of those once-in-a-career types.”

After she finished her MA in English, then a PhD in English at Purdue University, Pittman proved to be just as outstanding a professor as she was a student. Documentary filmmaker Daneen Akers was a student at Pacific Union College when Pittman first started teaching there. The young professor made an immediate impact on her. “My initial impression of Monique Pittman was that she couldn’t be for real. She was the most upbeat, friendly, and enthusiastic professor I’d ever encountered,” she recalls. Pittman’s classes were also the hardest that Akers took at PUC—but she found herself rising to the occasion, again and again. “Moe is a force of nature,” she says. “She believes in her subject. She believes in her students. Her vision for what is possible through literature, inquiry, and the scholarly community is beautiful—and it’s contagious.”

Though Akers graduated in 1998, and Pittman left a year later to take a job at Andrews University, the two women stayed in touch. Years later, while Akers and her husband were producing a documentary, Pittman and her husband, Paul Smith, hosted them and their daughter at the Pittman-Smith home in Berrien Springs. “We weren’t the lightest footprint, with film gear, baby, baby gear, and so much more,” Akers says, “but they nourished us body and soul.”

At Andrews, Pittman impressed colleagues inside her department and beyond it with her thoughtfulness and her deep compassion. Dr. Rahel Wells, a professor of religious studies who now teaches bioethics in the Honors programs, remembers the first year she was a professor at Andrews. Her marriage had ended over the summer, and the grief of that experience was heavy on her as the school year began. Wells doesn’t remember exactly how she had met Pittman—she wasn’t teaching in the Honors program yet—but one afternoon, shortly after they had discussed the events of their respective summers, Pittman wrote her a letter. “In that letter,” Wells remembers, “she told me all about God’s guidance in her life, and her griefs and joys. I was so touched. I sense that’s just what she does for everyone: she makes them feel loved and cared for and like they matter.”

It is, I think, that combination of intellect and care that makes Pittman so universally beloved by her colleagues and students. She is also deeply, infectiously enthusiastic. When I was a student in her Literature and the Arts class, I remember learning about the elusive “Pittman hops.” Sometimes a student comment would be so brilliant that Pittman would be overtaken with excitement, laughing and hopping into the air. My greatest accomplishment that semester wasn’t the A I received in the class; it was the fact that I was rewarded with Pittman hops, not once, but twice, for my contributions.

To a stranger, this behavior might sound impossibly twee. What you have to understand, however, is that Pittman is also an incredibly rigorous, precise, brilliant scholar—one of the finest in the entire Adventist Church. With the heavy teaching load at Andrews, many professors—especially professors in the humanities—publish only a handful of articles during their entire career. Pittman has written two academic books, coedited a third, and authored or co-authored more than fifteen articles, as well as remaining an active member of the Shakespeare Association of America.

She sets her sights just as high for her students, mentoring them through conference attendance, scholarship applications, and graduate school admissions. “Many more scholars now know about Andrews University because of Dr. Pittman,” Matiko says. “She shows Honors students that it is possible to attend a relatively small, private, church-affiliated university and still ‘play in the big leagues’ academically.”

Despite the high praise heaped on Pittman by everyone I talk to, she is remarkably humble. “I couldn’t believe that someone so gifted, passionate, diligent, disciplined, and accomplished could be totally without arrogance,” Matiko muses. “I have never seen or heard her be condescending or cruel.”

During our conversations, Pittman repeatedly emphasized the tremendous amount of work done by every member of “the Honors family”: administrative assistant and recruiter Umana, the professors who teach in the program, the governing Honors Council, and the elected student leaders who help plan and execute events. “I am the steward of an amazing program that has a long history,” she says, but “that doesn’t happen alone. A huge team does that.”

The most visible and constant member of that team is Pittman’s right-hand woman, Umana, who stocks that beloved snack table in the Honors office, as well as planning and managing the logistics for events and trips, traveling to Adventist high schools to promote the Honors program, and providing constant support and encouragement to the endless stream of students who come through the Honors office. Umana also manages a relatively new part of the Honors program—its various social media accounts. She posts updates to Facebook, curates photos, and creates TikToks and Instagram reels following a day in the life of students or promoting upcoming events. Umana’s favorite part of her job is working with Pittman, the Honors Council members, and the professors. “I love how we collaborate with each other,” she says.

Dr. Sonia Badenas, associate professor of French, has been a member of the Honors Council since 2011. “It is a blessing to be in that circle,” she says. “You grow a lot as a scholar and as a person . . . accompanying our students in their growth.”

Numerous professors I spoke to described their own joy at getting to teach in the Honors program. Many of them had been students in the program themselves and saw it as an opportunity to give back. Dr. Vanessa Corredera, for example, took Literature and the Arts from Pittman as an Honors student in 2003. Today, she teaches the literature and fine arts component of freshman capstone Western Heritage. “I was eager to do so,” she says, “as that class was so foundational for me as an undergrad at AU. I love teaching the course because I get to spend an entire year with students, mentoring them as they tackle challenging questions about why they believe what they do. I really love helping them grow as thinkers and scholars.”

The students repay that appreciation in kind. During our interviews, they mentioned Western Heritage as taught by John Markovic, Ante Jerončić as well as by Corredera’s team; What Is Other? with Adam Fenner, Dr. Øystein LaBianca, or Dr. Stacie Hatfield; Cosmos, with Dr. Gary Burdick and Dr. Peter Lyons; and Thinking Theologically, with Jerončić or Davide Sciarabba, to name just a few. Students and teachers alike repeatedly mention their love for classroom spaces where they can read primary sources, have intense, interdisciplinary discussions, and step outside their comfort zones. In addition to the professors who teach dedicated Honors courses, many other professors across Andrews volunteer their time and expertise to mentor Honors projects, from first idea to final thesis defense.

Above all, however, the students are what gives the Honors program its vibrancy, intellectual richness, and life. Our “great, unbelievable, talented, convicted, ethical, loving students,” as Pittman calls them.

* * *

At today’s Thesis Symposium, twenty-three students are presenting their research across five dedicated rooms. The diversity of topics, even within a single room, is impressive. In the first session I visit, behavioral sciences major Irina Gagiu explains in careful detail how she collaborated with behavioral sciences professors, a nonprofit, and the county sheriff’s department to search for possible racial disparities in the county’s felony jail data. Research on this level is already rare at the undergraduate level—as is the fact that Gagiu also presented her findings at the Midwest Psychological Association’s annual conference.

Immediately following Gagiu’s presentation, we hear from Elizabeth Borton, a fine arts major who has created a series of religious icons in the Orthodox style using traditional methods. With her trendy undercut and oversized blazer, Borton looks the stereotypical artist—but alongside her discussion of mixing egg tempera paint and preparing her linen canvas, she speaks frankly and openly about how the project strengthened her relationship to God.

After Borton wraps up, I head to the biology room to catch Lauren Butler’s presentation, “Seasonal Variation in Phonotaxis of Female Cricket Acheta Domesticus.” Butler is one in a long line of biology researchers at Andrews who have collaborated with professors on their entomological research into crickets.[6] While biology students may good-naturedly complain about having their thesis topics determined by whatever their supervisor is working on at the time, they also frequently end up as co-authors on scholarly papers before attending graduate school.

Moncrieff, a postdoctoral researcher at Louisiana State University, is one such student. His 2012 Honors thesis grew out of fieldwork he did as an undergraduate studying the breeding patterns of gulls under the direction of Andrews biology professors Dr. James L. Hayward and Dr. Shandelle Henson. “My experience in Honors directly shaped my career trajectory,” he says. “My Honors thesis, with incredible AU mentors, was the launching point for my current career studying the biology of tropical birds.”

Moncrieff and Butler’s successes as scientific researchers exemplify why, during our conversation last month, Pittman was resistant to characterizations of the Honors program as designed for humanities students, or overly focused on history, literature, and philosophy. First of all, she reminds me, Honors generally has more STEM majors in it than humanities majors—a fact that should not be that surprising, considering how many of my own classmates went on to medical school after graduation. The Honors curriculum actually includes more science coursework than the standard general education at Andrews. In addition, the undergraduate research that students like Moncrieff, Butler, and Gagiu do is rare, even at prestigious Ivy Leagues or powerful state schools.

Beyond their required Honors courses, each Honors student must propose a project to the Honors Council, conduct independent research, consult primary and secondary sources, write an analytical report, give a poster presentation of their findings to the public, and finally, defend their thesis to an audience of professors, students, and guests at the Symposium. Not only do students become comfortable with the research process and gain specialist knowledge about their particular research topics, Pittman explains, but the process of writing their thesis hones “critical thinking, putting bodies of knowledge in dialogue, and professional articulacy . . . it allows students to practice deep work.”

“My time in Honors taught me resilience and critical thinking skills that were used throughout my entire medical education,” says Sanchez. He will start his pediatrics residency this summer after graduating with his MD from Loma Linda University. “Being able to read primary sources and extract the necessary information applicable to my patients was a skill I started practicing as I read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave or Augustine’s Confessions for our Western Heritage course. Working with an interdisciplinary team is becoming more and more common in the practice of medicine . . . and [that’s] something we experienced in Honors.”

Pittman also reminds me that the Honors program is a liberal arts education in the classical sense, incorporating both the liberal arts and the natural sciences. “I don’t see the disciplines in conflict with each other,” she says. “We are all meditating on what it means to be human.” The interdisciplinary nature of the Honors program only aids in that work. Students interact regularly with classmates from other subject areas and bring their viewpoints and research interests to classroom discussions.

The professors I spoke to who teach STEM-related Honors courses deeply enjoy their Honors electives specifically because of that interdisciplinarity and chance to reflect. Dr. Karl Bailey, a professor of psychology, teaches the Honors elective Cognitive Science and Faith. Not only do the students produce quality work, he reflects, but “I learn a lot from the Honors students in an area of current research for me—the cognitive science of religious belief—so it is especially meaningful. This is the only class that I teach that is in that research area, so it is very important for moving my scholarship forward.”

For Wells, her Honors course is a chance to return to her roots. Before getting her PhD in Old Testament theology, she completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology at Andrews. She was also a student in the Honors program herself, under the directorship of Russell. When in 2015 she was asked to teach a class on bioethics that would be cross listed in biology and Honors, she jumped at the chance to explore a lot of the ways scientists must “think and apply biblical principles.”

Wells integrates theology and science throughout her curriculum, including scriptural study, case studies, and visits from working scientists. “It’s one of my favorite courses to teach,” she says. “It’s challenging for me because I don’t feel that there are a lot of answers on these issues; there are a lot of gray areas. I’ve changed my mind on so many of these issues as the years go by.”

Students with STEM career trajectories also look back on those interdisciplinary classes fondly. “While some view physics as a subject that destroys faith in God, I found the opposite while studying it at Andrews,” recalls Michael Hess II, who is now a structural engineer for a consulting firm. “I still remember getting goosebumps one day in Cosmos as several topics we’d been discussing came together and I realized how many ways the properties of physical light can enrich our understanding of the biblical metaphor that “God is light.”

“I see the integration of different subjects in Cosmos, and in other Honors classes, as a big strength,” says biology professor Dr. Peter Lyons, who co-teaches Cosmos. “Seeing how knowledge of science, philosophy, religion, sociology, and history all fit together in the complex issues of today is really important for being a well-rounded contributor to society. Additionally, it is valuable to be part of a community of thinkers: those who are interested in discussing these issues, not just getting a grade.”

* * *

My last presentation stop is the one where I feel most at home: Buller 250, where one political science major and three English majors are presenting their work. Eight years ago almost to the day, in a room just a few feet away, I presented my own Honors thesis, an examination of autobiography and selfhood in Virginia Woolf’s experimental stream-of-consciousness novel The Waves. It’s easy to forget how monumental that project felt. I spent the better part of two years researching and writing an essay that clocked in at just over twenty-five pages.

A year later, while pursuing my master’s in English at McMaster University, I routinely wrote papers that long within a month for my coursework.

It was that thesis, however, that taught me how to survey existing scholarship, propose a topic, and defend my findings in front of an audience. Though seven years later, my PhD dissertation was almost twelve times the length of that Honors thesis, it wouldn’t exist without it. The ideas about autobiography, identity, and community that I explored in my study of contemporary religious memoir were ideas I first shared on that distant April day.

Once again, it’s easy to feel as if no time has passed, as if nothing has changed. Matiko, who was there for my first day of university—Transcribing the Self, 8:30 a.m.—supervised my final project as well, from initial idea to thesis defense. Though she retired in 2021, she’s sitting next to me at the Symposium today. She’s here to cheer on the senior English majors and sign off on the last of the projects she helped supervise.

Next to Matiko sits Jones Gray, professor of English and twice department chair. Though Jones Gray was an Honors student at Andrews in the 1970s under legendary Honors founder Ogden, and taught Honors Composition in the 90s, she was at my defense eight years ago to support me as an English major and her long-time teaching assistant. When I surprise her at the beginning of the Symposium today, she greets me with a big hug, and we immediately start animatedly discussing which Symposium presentations to attend.

“It just felt right, seeing you standing there in the hall,” Matiko tells me later. “As if no time passed at all.”

That sense of slippage, I know, isn’t unique to me. Andrews—and in particular, the English department—is full of intergenerational relationships and connections. As noted earlier in this article, Jones Gray taught Pittman in the late 1980s. Pittman, in turn, became a professor at Andrews in 1999, and between 2002 and 2006 she taught Corredera. After pursuing a PhD at Northwestern University, Corredera returned to Andrews in 2013. She began teaching in the Honors program in 2015 and is now the chair of the English department as well. One of the first students she worked with at Andrews was Dr. Kylene Cave, who now occupies Matiko’s old office and teaches that Transcribing the Self class that I took from Matiko back in 2011.

Sitting now in this classroom, with all of these generations of brilliant women academics gathered together, I find myself getting a little emotional. In my dissertation acknowledgments, after all, I thanked “Dr. Meredith Jones Gray, Dr. L. Monique Pittman, and Dr. Beverly Matiko, the first women who told me I could do this and taught me how.”

I’m not the only person who points to these women as responsible for their career trajectory. Today, Tetz is an associate professor of English and chair of the English department at PUC. In 2008, however, she was just a high school senior visiting Andrews during a high school preview weekend. “I decided to go to Andrews,” she remembers, “because I did a campus visit and sat in on one of Dr. Meredith Jones Gray’s English classes, and I was like, ‘All college classes should be exactly like this!’ So I went to Andrews. I actually wasn’t going to go join Honors, but I went to the orientation and Dr. Beverly Matiko talked to us about her class, Transcribing the Self, and I was like, “All college classes should be exactly like this!’ So I joined Honors.”

Tetz laughs. “In retrospect, I probably should have put a bit more thought and consideration into literally any decision I made when I was 17. But it worked out for me in the long run.” The skills Tetz both uses and teaches in her classes every day are skills that she first developed in Honors, she says. “Inquiry, analysis, synthesis, communication—that ever-elusive and ever-sought-after ‘critical thinking’—they were the bedrock of every Honors class. Being able to work through these foundational ways of thinking with colleagues in a variety of disciplines was really rewarding.”

I am reminded of how important those skills were to my own graduate school career as I listen to Koh’s presentation on race and gender in The Hollow Crown. She deftly surveys existing scholarship, employs a number of theoretical lenses, and makes specific and insightful critiques of her source text—all skills that many English majors don’t perfect until they’re in graduate school.

“That’s a great question,” Koh says, when I ask her how she thinks the genre of Shakespeare’s history plays in her analysis. “I wish you had been in our Shakespeare seminar with Dr. Pittman!”

“Thank you,” I laugh, and glance across the aisle to where Pittman sits. “I did take her Shakespeare seminar—back in 2012!”

This kind of interconnection creates rich communities and deep institutional memory that spans generations. The Honors Facebook page regularly posts glowing updates about career achievements, marriages, and visits by “treasured Honors alumni,” often accompanied by #honorsfamily. Many of my interview subjects, students and faculty alike, refer to the people they knew in the Honors program as being like family. Corredera, who became Pittman’s close friend after returning to Andrews as a professor, says “we are like sisters.”

At the same time, institutions that are deeply steeped in tradition and memory can be troublingly resistant to change. This is especially true of higher education. Prestigious, storied schools like Harvard and Yale have come under fire in the twenty-first century for their insularity, devotion to tradition, and failure to address profound inequalities within society and among their students. Though Andrews has neither the endowment nor the prestige of an Ivy League school, in many ways it is susceptible to these same problems—problems that the Honors program, in particular, has had to grapple with.

As I read through the Symposium program and listen to the presentations, I notice one significant change from the research my peers did. This generation of students is far more willing, and far more well-equipped, to talk about the ways that issues of diversity and inclusion affect their subject matter. Gagiu’s behavioral sciences project deftly incorporates concepts including systemic bias and colorism with a dexterity that I wouldn’t acquire until graduate school. During Borton’s presentation, an audience member asks how she decided on the appearance and racial depictions of her icons—and Borton is ready with a thoughtful, measured response. All three of the projects by English majors incorporate intersectional approaches as a matter of course, critiquing not only their texts’ treatment of race but also demonstrating sophisticated analyses of how power and meaning are affected by gender, sexual orientation, and class.

I have no doubt that the students’ increased attentiveness to race stems, in part, from the national and international conversations that have taken place since I graduated in 2015. Gagiu’s examination of the Berrien Springs justice system exists in the wake of the 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd. Koh’s critique of The Hollow Crown comes eight years after the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite brought public attention to the overwhelming whiteness of the Academy Awards and, by extension, the mainstream film industry as a whole.

This shift in content and tone is also a direct response to changes that have taken place on the Andrews campus in the last several years. In February 2017, a group of concerned students responded to sustained patterns of racism and structural inequality on campus with the “It Is Time AU” campaign, which was shared widely throughout the Church. In response, Andrews University committed to a series of policies and changes on campus meant to address unjust treatment and increase intellectual and cultural diversity in positions of leadership. Most prominently among these changes, Andrews appointed Michael Nixon as its first-ever vice president for diversity and inclusion.[7] This heightened attention to racial discrimination and inequality on the broader Andrews campus paralleled a similar shift that was happening specifically in the Honors program.

Since the 1970s, academic theorists working in fields such as postcolonialism and feminist criticism have scrutinized concepts of “the canon” and critiqued the equation of texts by white men with “Western Heritage,” or, indeed, equating the study of “Western Heritage” with being highly educated. Defenders of this traditional model have been equally passionate—most famously, Yale English professor Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (1994).

Today, some universities tout their conservative, Great Books-style programs as a point of distinction. Two hours down the road from Andrews, for example, is another Christian institution, Hillsdale College. In its mission statement, Hillsdale identifies as “a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem” and notes the school maintains “a traditional liberal arts curriculum.” Hillsdale also refers derisively to the “dehumanizing, discriminatory trend of so-called ‘social justice’ and ‘multicultural diversity.’”

When I took Western Heritage, the year-long freshman Honors capstone history and philosophy class, in the 2011-2012 school year, the curriculum likely resembled that taught at Hillsdale College. We read thousands of pages of primary and secondary sources spanning over three thousand years of history. Despite the impressive scope of the class and the diversity of the student body, I don’t remember reading a single page of material by a woman or a person of color.

That all changed in 2015. Midway through the school year, history professor Markovic, one of the two professors who team-taught Western Heritage, unexpectedly received funding for a long-desired sabbatical. He decided to take the sabbatical immediately, leaving the course without a second professor to finish out the school year.

Pittman stepped in to finish the course. When she saw the syllabus, she remembers being shocked. “There’s a component to Honors education that’s always ‘Great Books, dead white men’ style,” she reflects, “but it was important to me that we engage with primary texts that represent the world more broadly.” For the remainder of the semester, she incorporated texts by women and people of color including Olaudah Equiano, Hannah Arendt, and Mary Wollstonecraft into her lesson plans. The result was a very different Western Heritage.

Jerončić is now a professor of ethics and theology and the chair of the department of theology and Christian philosophy in the Andrews University Theological Seminary. From 2007 to 2015, however, he was part of the undergraduate religion and biblical languages department, and he taught the senior Honors course, Thinking Theologically, as well as co-teaching Western Heritage. Jerončić got along well with Markovic and always loved watching students grow intellectually over the course of the year. Still, he remembers that last semester of Western Heritage that he taught with Pittman as being special. Co-teaching with Pittman encouraged him to consider new perspectives and make exciting connections between philosophy, history, and literature. “It was possibly one of the greatest experiences in my teaching career,” he reflects.

Her experience teaching Western Heritage impressed upon Pittman the importance of updating the Honors curriculum. The decision was not a rash one, nor one she made alone. As director, she does not make curricular decisions on a broad level without the support of the Honors Council. As Honors director, Pittman allows Honors professors a great deal of freedom in designing their course curricula.

In the summer of 2015, however, the Honors Council reached an agreement: the curriculum needed to evolve, “to honor our students and create a better representation of the student population,” Pittman recalls.

Andrews University, after all, is ranked number one for campus ethnic diversity among national universities in the United States, according to the 2022-23 U.S. News and World Report—a fact that features prominently in its marketing and corporate identity. The Honors Council members and other Honors professors committed to building course content that better reflects the diversity of their students.

Today, the Honors curriculum is “absolutely unapologetic in its disruption of the Western canon as the thing that makes us educated,” Pittman says. “That disruption is present in Kylene Cave’s Transcribing the Self, in my Literature and the Arts, in our anthropology course What Is Other? and in the current iteration of Western Heritage taught by Vanessa Corredera, Amanda McGuire-Moushon, and Davide Sciarabba. There’s been a concentrated effort to make sure that these commitments to diversity and inclusion are expressed throughout the curriculum.”

Irene Hwang, who witnessed the curricular shift as a student in Honors from 2013-2017, attests to how the diversity of her community and her education strengthened her faith and her professional practice. After graduating from Andrews, Hwang moved to New York City to attend Columbia University’s high-ranking College of Dental Medicine. (She is now completing a pediatric dentistry residency in the Denver, Colorado, area.) It was while living in New York City, Hwang reflects, that she truly came to appreciate her Honors education. “Every single day I was rubbing shoulders with someone who was atheist, or Muslim, or had been traumatized in a Christian setting. I had to know how to defend my own beliefs while respecting their experience. In Honors, I had to figure out my own religious beliefs using the same lens that I used to criticize other philosophers. I think that was foundational. If I hadn’t gone through [Honors], I wouldn’t be able to do that.”

The combination of cultural diversity and diversity of opinion prepared her for the thoughtful, empathetic work she does every day as a pediatric dentist. “[My professors] taught me that asking ‘why’ is a very important question, and learning how to listen is a very important skill to have.”

Not everyone appreciates that constant questioning and scrutiny that is built into Honors courses. Many Adventist Honors programs face the criticism that encouraging students to ask questions may lead to them leave the Church. The web page for sister school Burman University’s “Scholars,” includes the following in its list of Frequently Asked Questions: “Does Scholars encourage a particular theological stance; particularly in atheism or Christianity?” “Some wish to believe that Scholars will make you an atheist,” student Jordan Southcott writes in response. “I think a few of us have left the program deeply questioning our beliefs, but that’s not because Scholars is pushing some sort of atheistic agenda. That was just the journey that person was on.”

Southcott’s description of his classmates’ experience at Burman mirrors the experience of many of my peers in the Andrews Honors program. Yes, some graduated identifying as atheists. Many others, however, found their Christian faith only deepened and strengthened. When questions arose—and in my experience, they always arise eventually—they had many intellectual tools at their disposal and thoughtful, caring Adventist mentors who were there to help them work through those questions together.

Dr. Erhard Gallos, who teaches the Honors religion course Scripture, does worry for his students whose questioning leads to a loss of faith. “When this life is over,” he says, what is the difference between “the ash of a non-Honors student” and “a well-educated Honors student? What counts is the eternal legacy that we leave behind and the people we have influenced for eternity. That is the value of any Christian/Adventist education, be it Honors, or non-Honors.”

“Some people think that the examined life, the ‘test all things’ that Honors encourages, is suspect and dangerous,” Matiko tells me in our conversation. “Just the opposite is true. I would often say to my students, ‘If you leave Andrews thinking and believing exactly as you did as a freshman, you deserve a refund.’ I want my students to discover that they are here to grow, and growth involves change. Growth and change aren’t always comfortable processes. Remember those growing pains in your limbs when you were younger? Some of that discomfort and its intellectual equivalent—uncertainty and questioning—is necessary to growth. This place and this program are safe places to do that questioning. The professors are committed members of their faith communities who model the lived reality that questioning and faith are not mutually exclusive.”

There is one other way in which the Honors program stands out as a safe place: for LGBTQ+ students. The situation for LGBTQ+ students on campus today is clearly far less hostile than when I was a student between 2011 and 2015. During my time at Andrews, I only knew three people who were openly LGBTQ+. The underground support group, AULL4One, fought for years to achieve any kind of institutional recognition, and Andrews received a flurry of negative media coverage when it elected not to let AULL4One host an official bake sale to raise money for an LGBTQ+ youth shelter.

In 2017, the Board of Trustees approved the creation of the officially sanctioned support group Haven, which maintains the Adventist Church’s teachings on gender and sexuality while also recognizing that LGBTQ+ teenagers and young adults are more likely to experience familial rejection, harassment, and depression. “The University’s goal is to engage these students spiritually and support them emotionally as they navigate their sexuality and/or gender identity,” the university noted in its official announcement. This is a life-saving intervention backed up by evidence. In a 2019 study by The Trevor Project, surveys demonstrated that LGBTQ+ youth who knew at least one supportive adult were forty percent less likely to attempt suicide.[8]

Many of the LGBTQ+ students who attend Andrews University today speak highly of the Honors program as a community where they always feel welcome. “Pittman always does everything within her power to make [every student] feel safe, supported, and loved, which makes all the difference in an undergrad experience,” one student tells me. “It is hard to think of anyone on this campus I respect more than Dr. Pittman,” another says.

For Pittman, and the Honors program as a whole, radical hospitality means seeing the image of God in all students and offering them a seat at the table in the fullness of who they are. “If you’re going to teach,” she says, “that is your ethical commitment.”

Dr. Adrienne Redding, a member of the English faculty at Western Michigan University, isn’t a Seventh-day Adventist. She attended Andrews University for her English degree because it was just down the road from where she lived with her growing family. Despite not being part of the denomination, she was deeply impressed by the caliber of the education she received at Andrews—and the warmth of the community she became a part of.

“I always felt like family and I always felt beloved,” she tells me. Redding looks at the work done by professors like Pittman and Matiko and Jerončić—at the work done by Andrews University—as having “the potential to continue to be such a force for good for the Church.” As an outsider, she sees the university as facing a choice every day: “it can alienate people and hurt people,” or “it could be a real witness.”

* * *

While we’re chatting after the end of the program, Pittman introduces me to Terika Williams, a senior English and Spanish major who will be starting a master’s program in English this fall at the University of Kentucky. As the three of us discuss the importance of prioritizing mental health and the continuing challenges of the academic job market, Pittman suddenly excuses herself and swoops down to clean up an errant piece of cupcake that someone dropped in the middle of the room. Without missing a beat, she cleans up the mess and returns to the conversation, where she reassures her student that she absolutely belongs in scholarly spaces and will do fulfilling, brilliant work.

“What advice would you give your younger self who was about to start graduate school, if you could?” Williams asks me. True to form, I can’t settle on just one thing, and I offer up a variety of suggestions before I finally pause for breath. “If you’re anything like me,” I conclude, “there will no doubt be moments in grad school when you ask whether you belong there. ‘Do I really have the skills and training to compare to these brilliant people who have gone to fancy Ivy League schools?’ What I have found is yes. You absolutely do belong there. The education you’ve received in Honors here will put you on the same level as any of those students. In fact, you have an advantage. Sure, they may have gone to Yale and sat in a lecture hall with three hundred other people listening to Harold Bloom. But you spent the last four years reading and writing and talking with Dr. Bailey and Dr. Matiko and Dr. Pittman—and they all care about who you are, too.”

I would have said the same thing months ago, but now my words are backed with a certainty gained from the research I’ve done while writing this article. The majority of Honors students go on to further education in medical school or law school or graduate programs. They attend—and excel at—top-rated universities in their fields, including Ivy Leagues and top state schools. During Pittman’s tenure as director, two students have been accepted to graduate programs at Oxford University, often considered the best university in the world. The people I have interviewed for this project frequently hold impressive titles that speak to the recognition of that “Honors quality”: university professor, structural engineer, surgeon. “The care that Pittman poured into the act of grading stays with me today as an editor,” reflects Cécile Bruso Engeln, editorial director at the New England Historical Genealogical Society. “When working with a manuscript, I remember that my feedback will have an impact on the reader.”

In modern discussions about higher education, it is popular to consider results in terms of statistics. What average salary does a graduate of a program achieve? What is the placement rate in tenure-track jobs? Who pays off their student loans the fastest?

In the face of shrinking student numbers, decreased public investment in higher education, and constant controversy over course content, universities have become more and more like businesses. Whether they’re prestigious Ivy Leagues like Harvard or giant state schools like Arizona State University, “universities increasingly depend on the markets and their short-term goals,” Nathan Heller writes in The New Yorker.[9]

By this metric, the return-on-investment of participation in the J. N. Andrews Honors Program is an impressive one. Students develop valuable hard and soft skills, go on to impressive, high-earning careers, and routinely find that their education is comparable to that earned by students at some of the top-ranked universities in the country.

“The Andrews University honors program is an outstanding example of how to model the Adventist goal of excellence in scholarship and learning while deepening students’ faith commitment,” says Dr. Andrea Luxton, the first female president of Andrews University, who retires this June. “Students leave this program outstanding scholars and professionals, as well as faithful followers of Christ.”

* * *

After the Symposium is over, I take another walk around campus to reflect on everything I’ve just seen and heard. Moving more slowly, I notice signs of wear and tear that I missed before: doors that badly need painting, outdated signage, facilities that should be renovated.

Despite the heroic efforts of its faculty and staff, I know that Andrews faces constant financial challenges, as do many other Adventist universities. “Multigenerational Adventists are often more interested in sending their kids to a ‘prestigious’ college,” Lyons reflects, “and newer and immigrant Adventists often end up going to state schools or community college for lack of money.”

“It’s very hard to compete with juggernaut institutions when you’re small, and when you’re drawing from a limited demographic,” Jones Gray says. “Adventism almost always responds to hard financial times by cutting and chasing trends that work with money-makers. We’re adding programs and degrees that are designed to get people jobs instead of educate people. That’s a trend in higher education as a whole, but it’s a shift away from the liberal arts that are at the core of Adventist education.”

Several professors have also expressed to me their particular anxieties specific to the Honors program: concerns about decreased attention spans due to social media and smartphone use, more fragile student mental health, and increased anti-intellectualism within American society as a whole.

“I am worried about what I see as a move to make a smaller SDA tent when it comes to Adventist education,” Corredera writes. “What I mean is that there used to be a general acceptance of the many ways and forms of being Adventist. That openness appears to be diminishing, which I believe harms our students, and our faculty too. As bell hooks notes, true community comes from an ethic of love that entails accepting and celebrating differences, not dominating others in hopes of eradicating those differences. I hope Adventist education pursues that ethic of love as part of its future, because I believe that ethic is truly what it means to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

It is that ethic of love that lingers with me as I wander campus. The weather has been unseasonably warm this week, and campus seems lusher than usual as a result. The grass is already a brilliant green, flower beds are thick with daffodils and tulips, and trees are swelling with pink and white blossoms. As I round a corner, I see to my delight that one of my favorite spots is unchanged—a weathered wooden bench swing under a blossoming arbor in the middle of a garden. I remember sitting on that swing for hours, texting with friends, doing the reading for What Is Other? or just enjoying the rustle of the leaves in a slight breeze. After a moment’s hesitation, I climb onto the swing, turning so that my feet hang over the side. Just beyond my perch are the windows of the small Red Rose Chapel, where I would spend hours debating theology with my friends after Western Heritage let out on Friday afternoons.

In the interviews I conducted for this project, people invoked a lot of different metaphors to explain what Honors meant to them. Snively calls it a “crucible.”

To Hwang, it was a “greenhouse.” But, sitting here now surrounded by flowers and birdsong, my favorite metaphor is Pittman’s own: “This is a safe place, where you know your questions won’t be laughed at,” she says. “It is a garden.”

“In any profession—a pastor, a professor, whatever—it’s important to have these foundational experiences, where you experience how awesome your profession can be,” Jerončić tells me. “You experience it at its best. And after that, you carry that knowledge with you forever. That’s what Honors was for me.”

Notes and References:

[1] Nathan D. Grawe, “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” accessed 2023.

[2] Nathan Heller, “The End of the English Major,” New Yorker, February 27, 2023.

[3] Kate Marijolovic, “How Anti-DEI Bills Have Already Changed Higher Ed,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 13, 2023.

[4] Meredith Jones Gray, “A Commitment to Excellence,” Focus: The Andrews University Magazine, Winter 2008, 20.

[5] Of course, because of the labor involved I have not calculated the Honors percentage of every class in the intervening years, so this data is not conclusive. It is also important to mention that in each cohort of Honors students, there are several who graduate during the summer or fall semesters.

[6] Dr. Karl Bailey, an accomplished behavioral sciences and Honors professor who specializes in the cognitive science of religious belief, graduated from Andrews in 1999. His honors thesis was about neurobiology—specifically, the neurobiology of crickets.

[7] The position was renamed vice president for university culture and inclusion in 2021. Nixon announced he was leaving Andrews to take a position as director for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Beacon Health System in April 2023.

[8] “National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health,” The Trevor Project, 2019.

[9] Heller, “The End of the English Major.”

This article appears in the most recent issue of the Spectrum journal (Volume 51, issue 2). It contains photos that adds to the reading experience. Click here to view the images.

Melodie Roschman is a writer, public educator, and academic communicator. She has a PhD in English from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studied identity, resistance, and community in the memoirs of progressive Christian women. She is a proud alum of the English department and J. N. Andrews Honors Program at Andrews University, where she served for two years as editor-in-chief of The Student Movement. She currently works as a communications officer for the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo, and she lives in Guelph, Ontario, with her husband, Taylor, and cat, Minnie.


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