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July 23, 2009

Where the classes are hard. And the issues? Harder.

By Steve Hansen

Josh Stromberg and Catherine Cheng aren’t together in any of the same classes. They’re not studying the same major. They’re not even in the same year. (He graduates next year; she a year later.) But when they talk about what they are studying as part of PLU’s International Honors Program, they’re on exactly the same page.

Josh Stromberg and Catherine Cheng

International Honors Program aren’t simply studying complex world issues.

Their conversation slides effortlessly from the philosophy of Schleiermacher, to the symbolism of Frankenstein’s monster, to the genocide in Rwanda. They never miss a beat.

To hear Josh and Catherine discuss some of life’s most interesting topics and the world’s most vexing issues speaks exactly to why the International Honors Program has become such an important part of their college experience. They don’t simply study issues from afar – they study them from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of disciplines. They are not simply reading about the great thinkers and the great ideas that have made the world what it is – they are systematically dissecting and testing these ideas and looking at them from every perspective.

“The conversations I’m having in my IHON classes? I’ve never had conversations like these in my other classes,” said Catherine, an anthropology and global studies major from Bellevue, Wash.

Lots of schools have honors programs. They are tough. They require a lot of work. They are limited to high achieving students, of which there are a lot of expectations. And in that way, PLU’s program is no different than others.

There is, however, one key difference. What makes PLU’s program so unique is its interdisciplinary and international focus.

“This is really where PLU is on the cutting edge,” said Andrew Finstuen, assistant professor of religion and director of the International Honors Program. “A lot of honors programs are built on the older, traditional ‘Great Books’ model. But that’s not where the field is heading. When educators advise universities about how to build the honors program of the future, they talk of building an internationally focused program. And PLU has been doing that for years. PLU has a distinct advantage in that regard.”

That international focus is what attracted Josh to the program in the first place. “I thought it was a cool opportunity – this was a chance to get the most out of my college career,” said Josh, a Spanish and environmental studies major from Happy Valley, Ore. He plans to study away in Oaxaca, Mexico, this fall.

Josh was a typical candidate for the honors program. He’s a strong student with a desire to study away. He’s pursuing advanced language study. He’s very interested in social justice issues. When he saw the opportunity to view some of the issues he cares about from many different perspectives, he couldn’t pass that up.

In some ways, he got more than he bargained for. But he’s enjoying every minute of it.

“I’m humbled. The world is more complex than I’ve ever imagined. It made me realize that I’m not going to save the world – the best that I can do is try to understand.” Josh pauses, then asked: “But what is education without action?”

One of the things that also appeals to both Catherine and Josh is the fact that most of the classes are discussion-based, as opposed to lecture-based. It allows students to really get a chance to dig deep into the subject matter and explore it. Or, in the words of Catherine, the structure allows you to “find out what makes sense to you, dive in and swim around.”

It makes them feel like they are not simply getting lectured – they are part of the discovery process. An active part.

That’s the point, according to Finstuen. Because the students in the IHON program take the same seven classes together, they’ve already built a rapport. “They are already comfortable with each other. That makes the discussions more open, more engaging. It makes a huge difference,” Finstuen said.

Lively discussion means that students have to be prepared. Students can’t skip readings, or classes – simply having a larger workload is no excuse. Being part of a select group keeps everyone razor sharp – and accountable. “It is what post-graduate studies are like,” said Finstuen.

It is probably too early for either Josh or Catherine to decide if grad school is going to be their next step after PLU. They aren’t thinking about that right now. They are thinking about what they are learning in their IHON classes, and how they can apply it to their other classes.

“It is worth the extra amount of work,” said Catherine, “because I’m challenged just enough out of my comfort zone.”

It could be said that is the reason both Catherine and Josh got into the IHON program – they wanted to get out of their comfort zones.

And that is a fundamental component of the IHON program: To ask each student, in the words of Finstuen, “where do you position yourself in all of this?”

This the big question both Josh and Catherine are still grappling with. As they explore the issues of great concern across the globe, what do they do with this knowledge? And how might they apply it in the world?

And while that might add to the day-to-day workload that every student at PLU deals with, they really wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s nice to have my thoughts challenged,” said Catherine.

“Actually it’s not nice,” Josh added with a laugh. “But it is really important.”