Building an Honors Community
When the campus opened back up after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Honors College at Commonwealth University-Bloomsburg faced a problem that affected the entire university: how do you engage students who haven’t been at school in a year?
Sophia Lami, a nursing major from Rockaway, N.J.; Haley Shimko, a psychology major with an anthropology minor from Sunbury; and Jay Sabol, a psychology and philosophy double major from Harmony: three seniors in Bloomsburg’s Honors College returned to Bloomsburg after the COVID-19 pandemic cut their first year short. They didn’t just notice the drop in attendance and engagement following the pandemic, they worked to rebuild the honors college community from the ground up.
The process to bring students back into the Honors College started before the students even returned to campus. Shimko recalls the disconnect that she and many other students in the college felt at the time. “While everything was online, we didn’t have much opportunity to do much that year,” says Shimko.
“It was really easy to lose track of students during that time, because we weren’t as active,” says Lami. “We reached out to over 600 students in the college to see how they were doing and offer them the support they needed before returning to campus.”
Once students returned full-time to campus in Spring 2021, Sabol and the others noticed a trend among students in the college. “There were a great number of students who had a hard time finding time to practice self-care, especially among freshmen,” said Sabol. “These students tended to overload their schedules with difficult classes and pushed themselves to keep their grades perfect, which is an unrealistic expectation. It was only after they started to feel overwhelmed that they would try and learn how to take care of themselves.”
This issue prompted the honors college to continue to work on ways that they could support their students’ mental health and well-being. “College is a huge transitional time for students, so we started to offer more mindfulness-based events,” says Shimko. These events included conversations about mental health and meditation sessions, giving students dedicated time to practice the self-care they desperately needed.
Additionally, as part of her senior capstone, Shimko built a “Take what you need corner,” to stock with basic hygiene products, toiletries, and school supplies for the honors students. “Many of our students come to college with scholarships covering everything except for their own personal care,” explains Lami.
Contrary to their concerns about engagement and attendance, some of the first events that the group held were incredibly successful. “We held a sip and clay that first semester. We got juice, and some air-dry clay, and sort of expected it to be a more lowkey, calm event,” says Lami. “But over 50 people showed up.”
“The sip and clay was the first event I ran,” says Shimko, “After the success of that, we continued to plan crafts and other similar programs because they seemed to go over well with the other students.”
Walking past Lycoming Hall, the Honors College’s home, their most successful program is quite apparent in the colorful beds of landscaping rocks that line the front of the building, “We do rock painting now almost every semester,” says Lami. “People keep showing up, so we keep hosting it.”
Despite the turnout to these events, attendance, and engagement is still a concern for the group. Attendance in events over the past few years has yet to match that from before the pandemic, but it hasn’t stopped their efforts to improve it.
The group cites the mentor and mentee program with being one of the biggest contributors to keeping students engaged in the college. In the Honors College, each first-year student is required to have an upperclass mentor; these groups of mentors and mentees have mandatory check-ins throughout the semester to keep tabs on the students’ wellbeing and academics, as well as offer an opportunity for them to connect with one another.
“My group of mentees this year all became friends with one another,” says Shimko. “We have a group chat together so that we can keep in contact if they need me, and they eventually made plans in our messages to create a separate chat without me in it so they wouldn’t blow my phone up with their conversations. It’s rewarding to see that I helped students find their people in college.”
The Honors College didn’t just help Shimko’s mentees find their people, it helped herself, Sabol, and Lami find one another. “We watched each other grow up,” says Shimko.
Looking back, the three agree they’ll miss the Honors College most from their time at Bloomsburg. All three note the meaningful connections they made with students and faculty on campus through the college, and the opportunities they were given to build their confidence and leadership skills. “And the library Starbucks,” jokes Sabol.
After graduation, each has big plans. Sabol will pursue his doctorate in clinical psychology at Widener University in the fall. His goal is to eventually start a career in juvenile forensic psychology. “What draws me most to this field is its focus on rehabilitation,” says Sabol. “I would also like to work with trans youth. There are not enough clinicians who have firsthand experience with this community, and I want to help to change that.”
Shimko will also pursue a post-graduate degree and will start to work on earning her doctorate at Pacific University’s clinical psychology program in the fall. She would like to work in a university focusing on mindfulness-based intervention for adolescents and young adults going through transitional periods.
Lami has received offers for positions in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. “Obviously, after finishing my nursing degree, my plan is to be a nurse,” says Lami. While she has several job offers, Lami is still figuring out what position she can see herself in. “One position offers me a unique opportunity to help others in a diverse community,” said Lami. “I might just change my dream and start chasing this one.”
As they prepare to pass the Honors College to the next generation of executive board members, the group is confident they’re leaving their work in good hands. “We’re leaving behind students who will be able to help the students even more than we could,” says Lami.