Honors College students primed for graduate school

Western Carolina University’s spring graduating class includes 174 undergraduate students who will be receiving their diplomas as members of the university’s Honors College, and if past trends are any indication, many of those students will soon transition to graduate schools, including WCU’s, to begin work on their master’s, doctorates and other graduate degrees.

Informal surveys conducted in previous years indicated that at least 45 percent of Honors College students continue on to graduate study, said Brian Railsback, dean of the college. Also, fully two-thirds of this year’s graduating students who responded to an Honors College survey in April are planning to go to graduate school. In comparison, a 2012 U.S. News and World Report survey of colleges and universities indicated that an average of 27 percent of college graduates across the nation enroll in a master’s program within one year of graduation.

When Honors College students arrive on campus as freshmen, many are unsure of what they want to do after they graduate, but a few show up with a plan already set, Railsback said. Tess Branon came to WCU from Apex in the fall of 2009 to begin work on a double major in chemistry and biology. She is graduating this spring and will receive the Honors College diploma and medallion along with her peers in the college.

Branon said she arrived at WCU already planning to continue on to graduate school and with the thought in her mind that she would eventually transfer to a bigger university to improve her chances of getting into the graduate school of her choice. Things didn’t turn out that way. “I ended up loving it and staying,” she said. Branon, who has recorded a perfect 4.0 grade-point average during her time at WCU, was accepted for admission by several of the most prestigious graduate schools in the nation, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. She has decided to pursue her doctorate in chemistry at MIT, which is located in Cambridge, Mass., and will benefit from a combination of tuition waivers and salaried teaching and research assistantships worth more than $67,000 per academic year.

Branon said she received a high level of support from the Honors College staff and her home academic departments – chemistry and biology – as she went about the process of working on her academic profile to increase her chances of getting into the graduate school of her choice. She expects to work on her doctorate for five years, and then to enter a post-doctoral program. Her first year at MIT will include taking some classes and teaching other classes, but after that her focus will be on research in chemical biology. She has not decided on a definite career path. “Coming back to Western Carolina to teach is something I’ve thought about a lot,” she said.

Branon said she has been impressed by her fellow students in the Honors College’s graduating class. The group is composed of “a lot of hardworking, intelligent people, and I think it shows in where we’re going,” she said.

The April survey indicated that many Honors College students are planning to enroll in WCU’s Graduate School, while others will begin graduate study at other institutions. Taylor Fie of Clyde graduated summa cum laude (with highest honors) with a bachelor’s degree in English at WCU last December and will be attending the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill starting in the fall. Another Honors College student from Haywood County, Tyler McKinnish of Canton, will receive his bachelor’s degree in biology in May and also will be attending the School of Medicine at Chapel Hill in the fall. Another graduating senior, Lindsay Carter of Apex, has been accepted into the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Pharmacy. Other Honors College seniors are making plans for graduate study at institutions such as Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Clemson, Michigan State, Iowa, Kentucky and Louisville.

When academically high-achieving students join the Honors College as freshmen, the top priority for the honors staff is to encourage those students to immediately begin considering what they are going to do after they get their bachelor’s degrees, Railsback said. “We want Honors College students to start thinking about what happens after graduation the first day they’re here,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about.”

The Honors College staff consults with students about service learning, undergraduate research, study abroad and internships, and how those components fit into the fabric of their educations at WCU, Railsback said. At the end of their first six weeks on campus, honors students complete a learning plan that they will follow to meet their educational goals at WCU. They also enter into honors contracts for various courses as they progress through their educations, pledging to complete a special project or activity that will take them deeper into a subject area. All those efforts are concentrated on one goal – improving the academic profile of the individual student for entry into graduate school or a career, he said.

Railsback said the counseling and mentoring provided by himself and the college’s associate dean, Steve Carlisle, and pre-professional adviser, Emily Sharpe, is just one aspect of the support provided on campus to Honors College students, who also benefit from meetings with their academic advisers as well as from their interactions with many WCU faculty members in the classroom.

For more information about WCU’s Honors College, contact the college at 828-227-7383 or email Railsback at brailsba@wcu.edu.

Tess Branon

Tess Branon