WEST PLAINS, Mo. – Fifteen years ago, a small group of academically gifted students took advantage of a new opportunity at Missouri State University-West Plains to challenge themselves beyond regular classroom studies and develop new truths and new ways of thinking and learning that would impact them for the rest of their lives.
Since that time, 479 students have taken up this same challenge and enrolled in the university’s William and Virginia Darr Honors Program, which reached a significant milestone this past fall when it surpassed the 100-student, single-year enrollment mark for the first time.
For program founder and first director Dennis Lancaster, the growth and success of the program has been beyond his wildest dreams. “My goal back then was to make it sustainable in terms of continuing numbers that would support having one class section of the introductory course available each fall,” he explained. “Now, we have two full sections of 25 to 30 students each of Honors I during the fall and Honors II in the spring semester. Graduate numbers vary from 25 to 35 each year, which means that nearly half of those who start out in the program are, one, staying in college, and two, are continuing on in the program.”
Another measure of the program’s success is the number of graduates who have transferred to four-year institutions and graduated with a bachelor’s degree, Lancaster added. “That number is somewhere in the 90 percent range now,” he said. “And then beyond that, I’ve also started to keep track of Darr Honors graduates who eventually end up in graduate school, and that number is nearly 60 percent, but I don’t have all the data on that yet.”
Even so, the numbers prove the program is accomplishing its purpose of providing a quality educational experience for a distinct segment of the university’s student body. “I think it’s important that people recognize that, as an open admission campus, we serve students with a very wide range of academic preparation, capabilities and interests,” Lancaster said. “The Darr Honors Program is key to providing the upper end of that spectrum for the students and families of this region. Through our unique curriculum, we have developed a program that engages these students to achieve more than they ever thought possible for them.”
Students and graduates agree they’ve benefitted from the program in a variety of ways. “I learned a lot about myself from the honors program, much of which I find more applicable today than it was for me then,” said 2009 graduate Jessica Neal, Houston, who is currently working on her doctorate in pharmacy through the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Before I started the program, much of my view towards course work, as well as other things in a much more general sense, was very linear and one dimensional. During the semesters I spent in Mr. Lancaster’s classroom, that view began to expand as he challenged us to question things we had not yet been asked to consider. The lessons I learned in his class have helped tremendously as I continue my education, and I have no doubt they will extend far beyond the academic scope after graduation, as well.”
“The honors program reveals to its students not necessarily what to think, but how to think,” added current student and military veteran Logan Kinder, West Plains. “It provides the facts and concepts, and the decision is left up to each individual, yet through group efforts and analytical discussion. It has been very beneficial for my transition from the armed forces into the civilian sector, and I have grown tremendously throughout my honors experience.”
“I have become sharper in defending my own thoughts and ideas, as well as my faith,” said current student Truett Ray, West Plains, who plans to serve part time in ministry after he completes his education. “The very point of the program is to get students to rethink how we would normally approach an issue, so in my overall education, honors has made me question something a teacher might say that I am not entirely convinced of – not necessarily for the stake of starting an argument, but more for the sake of better understanding their position, as well as my own.”
“One of the most defining moments in my honors experience was in Honors 250 when we talked about Kierkegaard and his thoughts on faith and doubt,” added current student Leah Harris, Licking. “Kierkegaard believed that if we are to have complete faith in something, we must first doubt its authenticity. This one class changed the way I perceive new and old beliefs and information. Questioning is not comfortable, but it has helped me gain a great deal of self-assurance and confidence that affects every aspect of my life.”
For Alex Pinnon, West Plains, who graduated from the program in 2007, his experiences eventually prepared him to return to the program as its new director this past fall following Lancaster’s appointment as interim dean of academic affairs over the summer.
“After taking honors, I knew that academia was going to be my life,” he explained. “While I was going through this program, I was constantly asking myself how I could teach people about philosophy and social ideals. My first major was psychology, because I thought I might be able to teach through counseling, but once I realized that wouldn’t work, I went into English studies.”
Pinnon graduated from Missouri State University in Springfield with a Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing in 2011 and a Master of Arts in English with a focus on Literature in 2013.
“This opportunity was the first academic dream I ever had, so when I realized that teaching honors back home was a real option, I couldn’t say no,” he said of his return to the program.
The future of the Darr Honors Program looks just as bright, thanks in large part to the support it has received from such benefactors as former Missouri State University Board of Governors member William Darr and his wife, Virginia, of Springfield, both of whom are natives of Ellington, Mo., and are the program’s namesakes; the Philanthropic Women for Education; and a host of other individual donors whose support has helped endow not only the program, but its director/professor’s position.
“The honors program would not be where it is today without the assistance of many people,” Lancaster said. “As many high school administrators know, programs like this for gifted students can be costly and can be one of the first things cut when budgets are tight. We have been very fortunate and blessed to have such benefactors as the Darrs, the Philanthropic Women for Education and many others who have taken such great interest in what we try to do in the program. Without their support, these opportunities would either not be available or they would be greatly limited.”
Lancaster said university officials hope to one day provide a permanent home for the program in the planned Hass-Hoover Hall, as well as adding a section of the program’s two core courses to the campus’ Evening College Program, which is still being developed.
Pinnon hopes to continue the program’s direction toward brighter and more socially driven students. “I want to make the program even more community driven. The more we can teach the volunteer spirit, the better, so I plan on taking the courses in a direction that involves more social work,” he said.
“I also want to see what we can do online for this program,” Pinnon added. “I don’t mean to bring the class online, but see what we can offer the community through online blogs or podcasts. If I can get our students to be public with what they are learning, I would like to think that we could make the honors program be just as beneficial for people outside the program.”
For more information about the Darr Honors Program, visit wp.missouristate.edu/Academics/Honors.htm or call Lancaster at 417-255-7272 or Pinnon at 417-255-7965.