By Emma Brenner
In August 2018, the new director of KU’s honors program, Dr. Jennifer Schlegel, replaced Johanna Forte, who retired after directing the program for nine years. After taking a semester to become acclimated with the position, Schlegel is eager to bring new opportunities to honors students. Forte is also hopeful for the honors program’s success under its new leadership.
Being a member of KU’s anthropology and sociology department and having been a state system professor since 2005, Schlegel applied to be the honors director because it aligned with her passion to advocate for driven learners.
“I like working with extremely, highly motivated students,” she said. “I want to do the best to represent their needs, their interests, and their desires.”
Her transition into the role of director came quickly, as orientations began weeks after her induction.
“Being a director was a new role for me, and I hit the ground running,” Schlegel said. “I’ve been spending the year learning about the program as much as learning about the students and trying to make it the best it can be for the students.”
Schlegel has done this by meeting with department deans and contacting the program’s connections in housing, admissions and financial aid.
“I see myself as the number one advocate for these students,” Schlegel added.
Like Forte, Schlegel views honors students and their needs as her priority when making directorial decisions.
“I believe the purpose of the honors program is to challenge and support students in their path to academic success and their journey to success… to challenge and support them in achieving success, not just in the classroom, but as contributing members of society,” Schlegel noted. “Ms. Forte and I both want what’s best for the students.”
After working as a professor in KU’s theatre program as its costume designer for 22 years, Forte became the honors director in 2009 and went on to shape the high-achievement program into what it is today.
“The honors program is a program for high-ability students,” said Forte. “And I’ve always felt very strongly that, in order for a high-ability student to be successful in the program, it needs to meet their needs, academically and socially. So, it was important to me to survey the existing students at that time to find out what it is they wanted from this program and then to try to reconfigure the program to meet those needs.”
Forte solidified honors program guidelines, including the honors capstone project, and instituted required social events and trips to nurture student-bonding. When asked what the purpose of the program was, she said, “Service, leadership and intellectual discovery.”
While keeping the program student-focused, Schlegel hopes to add more experiential learning opportunities. These may include greater involvement in the community, study abroad programs and promoting the honors capstone project as a method to integrate academic and personal interests. Adding an honors interdisciplinary minor to the program and requiring staff to apply to become honors faculty are also part of her dreams.
“I do have big dreams for the program,” Schlegel said. “It’s hard to be a big dreamer when your day-to-day is still learning the program.”
Schlegel was supported in her transition by the then-honors secretary, Elaine Schwien, and the team in Honors Hall. To aid her “big dreams,” she consistently seeks student feedback to improve the program like Forte did as director. In fact, Schlegel’s hope of developing an honors college is one shared with Forte.
When Forte was the director, she urged students to pursue their goals and work to their full potential. Similarly, Schlegel aims to inspire current students to take risks by getting involved with new ideas, new subjects and new organizations.
“Healthy risk-taking is an important part of not just learning as a student, but as a human being in the world,” Schlegel said.