The Art of Collaboration

Like any other freshman, Mary Arrastia reported to orientation ready to learn about what was in store for her first year of college.

But instead of sitting in a classroom listening to presentations, Arrastia found herself in the middle of the wilderness holding hands with a classmate, trying to feel a pulse.

This “energy” exercise wasn’t typical for orientation. It was an introduction to what the inaugural class of the new CSULA Honors College can expect for the academic year.

As about 50 students held hands in a circle at the Audubon Center at Ernest E. Debs Regional Park waiting for the pulse—a hand-squeeze of recognition—they became connected to each other and to the nature that exists miles from their metropolitan campus.

“Honors orientation basically shook everything up,” said Arrastia, a math and chemistry major who wants to be a teacher. “It wasn’t just talking about the program and what’s expected. Our program’s whole theme is about being connected to Los Angeles and the trip allowed us to explore the city.”

University officials are hoping to engage students in more experiences like this.

The College is an intellectually supportive community for outstanding students, explained interim director Michelle Hawley. It’s an expansion of the Honors Program, and gives students access to smaller classes, outstanding faculty and a wide range of resources and networks.

The faculty host seminar-style classes that emphasize discussion and integrate community partnerships into the already challenging curriculum in order to emphasize critical thinking, service learning and a deep connection to the material.

“In the Honors College, it’s not enough for students to just learn things, to gather information. By the time they graduate, we want them to become creators of knowledge,” said Hawley. “We want them to be able to produce new knowledge because we know they’re preparing themselves for jobs we don’t even know exist yet.”

The freshman orientation outing and field trips, like the ones Honors Program took last year to the Ambassador Hotel site and Chinatown, take students directly to the source so they can personally connect with the lessons and see Los Angeles firsthand.

“It’s hard to have passion for the subject if you just study it in the classroom and read it from text. It’s easier to identify with it if you actually visit it,” said Michael Hsu, a sophomore majoring in computer science and the president of the Academic Honors Association.

Hsu mentioned the trip to Chinatown last year particularly struck a chord with him.

As he walked through the colorful alleys and mom-and-pop stores, tour guides from the Studio for Southern California History pointed out historical and cultural aspects of the ethnic region and explained that a French settlement was in the area before Chinese immigrants moved in.

“I’ve been there so many times and I’ve overlooked everything,” said Hsu. “It made me start seeing things differently and that’s one of the first steps to caring about your community and being involved.”

Some of the partnerships planned for this academic year include 826LA, a branch of the nonprofit writing and tutoring organization started by David Eggers, and CASA 0101, a community theater in East L.A.

“We want students to be able to produce new knowledge because we know they’re preparing themselves for jobs we don’t even know exist yet.”

- Michelle Hawley, Interim Director of Honors College

The College consists of about 40 freshmen—who are split into two groups that take classes together—and 23 sophomores who took part in the pilot program last year. Approximately 25 participants are at the junior level, made up of transfers and continuing Honors students.

The inaugural freshman class will be expected to complete about 38 units spread out over four years and execute a senior thesis project. Students who complete the program will receive a designation on their transcripts.

“Students repeatedly comment on how much they learn from one another and appreciate being in a class with other supportive students who really care about subject matter and about the education they’re receiving,” said Hawley.

The rigorous curriculum and mutual respect among classmates with similar ambitions is what attracted students like Arrastia to enroll as a freshman.

“I had advanced classes in high school and was attracted by the rigorous curriculum,” she said. “It’s not your typical class work where you get material and take tests and quizzes to test your knowledge. It takes it to a higher level, the critical thinking part of it, being able to express your ideas in a manner that’s analytical, very expressive of what you believe and what you can apply to the subject matter.”


Click here to view projects completed by the Honors Program.