“I’m about to lecture them on the importance of getting a backpack,” Associate Professor John Waller said as he points to a black hiking backpack sitting in the corner of his Berkey Hall office.
In the classroom space just outside of his office, students are noisily assembling for their meeting. The office is stacked floor to ceiling with books – typical of a faculty office – six of which Waller has authored.
But the empty backpack will likely be filled with more basic goods and materials in a few weeks as Waller heads to England, his home country, for a month-long study abroad program with the first-year cohort of Social Science Scholars.
The journey will first take them to London, to study the River Thames. Then, by riverboat, the group will stop at various communities representing the industrialization and post-industrialization of England. Students will study the slave trade in Liverpool and the abolitionist movement. They’ll also visit the University of Oxford to learn about climate change and policy.
“Demanding but experiential” is how Waller describes it.
Since the Social Science Scholars Program was founded three years ago, 33 of the 37 students have been, or have become, members of the Honors College. The program deeply immerses students in all of the social sciences, challenging their worldview by connecting them with expert faculty, activists and alumni from across the globe.
A significant research project is developed by students over the course of the first year, culminating in a study abroad journey, followed by creation of a student documentary in the second year and assistance with finding an internship.
In all, students earn 23 credits through these experiences and two years of seminars. Juniors and seniors remain connected to the program as mentors to the new scholars.
“Dr. Waller’s mentoring and reassurance have been vital to helping me actualize as the student I had always been and fervently wanted to continue to be in college,” Social Science Scholar Tristyn Walton wrote in her nomination letter for the Honors College Award for Distinguished Contributions to Honors Students. “Because of Dr. Waller, this inner city minority student has been able to maintain a 4.0 GPA, excel in the Honors College, and feel confident that I am preparing myself for life after college.”
Grace Hough, another Social Science Scholar, wrote, “Thanks to Dr. Waller, and the program he directs, I have had amazing opportunities at MSU to research with three different professors, grow a very close connection with both faculty and community mentors, and push myself intellectually.”
“We have just excellent students; very well motivated, smart,” Waller said. “They are serious about learning.”
While all are students in the College of Social Science, their majors and interests vary widely, Waller said.
What they share in common is a passion for social and political issues.
Waller beams with pride about the program and its impact on students, saying it not only nurtures students, but gives them an opportunity to excel.
“More than ever, I value the teaching part of the academia role,” Waller said.
This year, he received the Honors College Award for Distinguished Contributions to Honors Students. Waller said he took even greater pride in receiving the recognition knowing that Professor David Bailey, an esteemed member of the Department of History faculty, previously earned the same award.
This article was originally published in HConnections 2016.