While international relations is the third largest major in the School of Humanities and Sciences, its honors program has experienced a decline in student enrollment in recent years.
According to Ipshita Sengupta, student services administrator of the program in international relations, over 300 students are currently declared as international relations majors, but only seven or eight of those students are in the honors program. A few years ago, approximately 20 to 25 students participated in the honors program annually.
“International relations is a major that has a lot of breadth, [and] the honors program gives students the opportunity to concentrate on depth,” Sengupta said.
Thesis topics have typically ranged from issues in international education to human rights to international political economy.
Admission to the honors program requires prospective applicants to have a minimum GPA of 3.5 and a strong thesis proposal that is approved by a faculty member in the international relations (IR) department.
Erica Gould, the new director of the IR honors program, attributed this declining trend to the popularity of alternative undergraduate honors research programs. These programs include the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) honors programs, which have a more specific focus in research topics than the traditional international relations honors track.
Starting this year, the IR department is looking to revamp its honors program to attract more prospective students. One of the major changes to be implemented is the promotion of a better research environment.
“Research is at the core of the honors experience,” Gould said.
Previously, the honors program had no independent research funding. Instead, students who needed financing for their projects had to apply through Undergraduate Research and Advising (UAR). Gould hopes that in the next year, the department will form its own pool of grant money for honors students to utilize.
The department also hopes to enroll students in the honors program at an earlier stage of their undergraduate careers, which has proved to be a challenge. Traditionally, students applied for the honors program in the fall quarter of their junior year and were notified of acceptance in the spring quarter of the same year.
Starting this year, the IR major declaration forms will have an added section asking students to state if they are interested in pursuing the honors track. Sengupta said that interested students will be sent more information and materials on seminars and application procedures. This may help students enter the program earlier and have a longer timeline to complete their thesis research and writing.
“If students start in their junior year spring quarter, they can become stressed and overwhelmed, especially when the job hunting starts in the summer and senior year,” Sengupta said.
Furthermore, Gould noted that discussing the honors program earlier allows the department to reach students before they go abroad, which is a requirement for all IR majors. Students could therefore integrate their overseas experience into their honors theses, which is highly encouraged.
Another major change to take place is the creation of a community within the group of IR honors students. Ideas include faculty luncheons for professors and honors students to connect and discuss research, as well as priority for honors students in certain classes.
“The idea is to have honors students feel like they are part of a cohort of students rather than simply having the task of writing a thesis paper,” Gould said.
Judith Goldstein, current interim director of the international relations program, along with former director Kenneth Schultz and future director Michael Tomz, were each instrumental in the brainstorming process of these changes. Gould emphasized that the proposed changes are still in a tentative and preliminary stage, as many other ideas and possibilities are in line for the future.
A department meeting to discuss potential changes on Monday, Oct. 24, was attended by mostly juniors and faculty. According to Gould, the new ideas for the program received positive feedback from students.
“We want this to be a change embraced by students,” Gould said. “Our goal is to make the honors program an enriching and holistic experience for them.”