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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
September 16, 2008
DeKalb — Nancy Castle’s appointment as interim director of the Honors Program at Northern Illinois University demands more than keeping the ship afloat for the next year or so.
Castle also must steer the vessel through uncertain waters, help to find the next captain and create a bigger splash for Honors across campus and in the minds of prospective students.
“I have my marching orders to keep this ship sailing, but I’m not just a place holder,” Castle said. “I am not a candidate for the position after the interim. At this point in my career I want to spend more time on civic engagement and service learning, which makes me perfect for this.”
University leaders will spend the coming months examining and adjusting the Honors Program to closer match expectations set forth in the recent strategic planning process. Key among those goals is a greater focus on engaged learning.
Any changes are likely to generate a revised list of responsibilities for the director, something Castle will help to draft with Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver; Daniel Kempton, chair of the Honors Program Advisory Committee; and a subcommittee of that group.
“It seems unfair to put out a job description when that job could change, maybe adding features that somebody didn’t count on,” said Castle, a professor in the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders. “Eventually, we can be more fair to whomever applies and interviews for it if we can articulate what we really see the job encompassing.”
“Nancy will bring a great deal of enthusiasm to the position based on her experience as a faculty member here and also on her most recent experience of working on the strategic planning task force,” Seaver said.
“The other thing she brings is her desire to see this as a year of moving forward and not just a stagnant year where we’re treading water until we get a new director,” Seaver added. “She won’t be afraid in working with the honors committee to try to incorporate a number of the initiatives brought up in the strategic plan into her vision of this year.”
More than 800 students, including nearly 200 incoming freshmen, take part in the Honors Program. They enjoy smaller classes and closer contact with faculty, often meeting weekly with professors to tackle extra projects and engaged learning activities.
Graduates from the program boast “value-added” degrees, she said. “While all NIU students are challenged to do their best, honors students in particular should be forced to stretch their brains as close to their potential as possible,” she said.
Castle, who served on the strategic planning task force on curricular innovation and its subcommittees on engaged learning and honors, is confident the Honors Program will become even more oriented toward engagement.
As a professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences, she long has enhanced her courses with service learning projects. It’s “the noble aspect of teaching at a university,” she said.
“We should be helping students to develop critical thinking skills, to be good citizens and to give back to their communities,” Castle said. “My interest in service learning goes back for years. I teach mostly graduate courses, and I have had my graduate students out doing things in the community that we’ve processed in the classroom. It was a long time before I knew the name for that was service learning. I just thought it was a great way to get some points across.”
Three years ago, for example, students in her grant-writing course applied for funding to restore a Works Progress Administration-commissioned mural hanging at the DeKalb Public Library. Their well-worded plea to the DeKalb County Community Foundation earned a $5,000 challenge grant for the library that matched contributions toward the $10,000 restoration cost.
Castle now has obtained a faculty development grant to attend a conference on service learning, where she hopes to learn more about research service learning, and is planning a spring semester course on service learning that will enroll some honors students.
“The students in the regular section will do traditional service learning; the honors students will do research service learning,” said Castle, who is working with United Way to identify potential programs. “They’ll work with the same agencies to research some identified problems and conduct needs assessment.”
Tutoring youth in the community is one possibility. “I can have one group in the trenches tutoring students while the honors group is working with the program’s administration,” she said as an example. “As a group, they can process what is happening. It’s a great way to have the two groups ultimately work together.”
Castle’s other task is to energize the campus, both students and faculty, about the Honors Program.
Although her interim appointment is half-time and despite teaching four courses this fall – they include a new introductory course on occupational therapy – she plans to contact every department chair and attend every departmental faculty meeting.
She wants to meet with honors students already on campus, to study and possibly model great examples of honors programs at other campuses and to convince prospective high school students to make the NIU honors program their first choice for higher education. She also hopes to find ways to fund more scholarships for honors students.
So far, the more-than-double workload has not sapped her considerable energy.
“I can totally give 200 percent because this is only for a year. I couldn’t do that if I thought it was a 12-year job,” Castle said. “I’m going to get out there, ask questions and get conversations going. It’s great, and it’ll be great fun for me.”
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