Getting to Know: Honors Program Director Alicia Swords

By Stephen Shoemaker, February 2, 2017

Getting to Know: Honors Program Director Alicia Swords

Last fall, Alicia Swords, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, was named the new director of the Honors Program at Ithaca College. She has taught at IC since 2006 and focuses on global development, social movements and social change. She is a graduate of Oberlin College with majors in environmental studies and politics, and earned her Ph.D. in development sociology from Cornell University. 

She recently took time to answer several questions about her new role and the program she’s overseeing.

You’ve been settling into the role for a few months now since first being appointed. Are there any particulars about the program and/or the students that really stand out to you as you’ve gotten more familiar with it and with them?

The students are excellent, funny, amazing, fun and creative. They're doing really interesting things and are an eclectic bunch: They're studying abroad, doing internships, doing research with faculty and community organizations. They're really involved with our community here at Ithaca College and also the larger community here in Ithaca. They play in ensembles, they sing in a cappella groups, they edit “The Ithacan,” they write for “The Ithacan,” they're on the e-boards for all kinds of campus organizations.

They are really, really active, and when I first sat down with the student advisory board and did an [introductory] go-around, each one of the students had a long list of interests, commitments and things they were excited about. That was really exciting for me. What I would say is, they would make me want to come here if I was an undergrad. And they're very clearly a fun bunch for faculty to work with. I think faculty that teach courses in Honors are teaching things that they're really excited about. When [all] those minds come together it's really exciting. 

In your own words, how would you describe the mission and promise of the Honors Program?

I think the mission is to offer students a challenge, and let them know that they get to be with other students who want a challenge, and other faculty who want to work in that kind of context. The promise is:

“We'll think about you. We'll provide you with some of the top-notch forms of teaching, close relationships with faculty, and top-notch educational opportunities that are really proven to improve student success and student satisfaction. We know that an academic challenge, civic engagement, cultural immersion and opportunities to be involved at a global level and feel like global citizens – all of these things are really proven ways to educate students. We know this is the best we've got. We offer you trips, opportunities to travel, cultural experiences and immersion experiences. And in exchange you build community, give back to the community, learn about the world, become a global citizen and employ your passions to do what you love to do.”

I'll add that students also learn to do interdisciplinary work. So there's a real emphasis on being able to talk about issues, goals or problems across the lines that sometimes get constructed as professional or disciplinary lines. So these are students who can talk about climate change from an ecological, political, social and health perspective and can be in the room with engineers, politicians, parents and neighbors — lots of different people. They can talk about and work on an issue from many different angles. 

A lot of that sounds like the mission statement for Ithaca College. What sets the Honors Program above that? 

I feel it's important to be careful: I'm not talking about Honors students being better or being treated better than anyone else. Some people might. I think all of our students are tremendously intelligent. We are all human beings, and all human beings have infinite intelligence. What I think sets the Honors Program apart is that we have the opportunity to try out some of these really excellent practices with a smaller group of students. They are practices that take a lot of resources.

We’ve actually seen how the Honors Program works as an incubator. In my conversations with prior directors and faculty that work with the Honors Program, one of the really exciting things that happens is that you try things in the Honors Program, and they spread. [For example] Other departments start encouraging and really supporting students to be involved with immersion programs, or undergraduate research, or cross-cultural opportunities, and these sorts of things. I would say the idea of Honors as an incubator is a really interesting one.

I also think of Honors as a way to bring together people who are ready for and actively seeking out these kinds of interdisciplinary — sometimes a little bit challenging — kinds of conversations. We know, for example, that to address poverty, or climate change, or racism, we need people who are versed in a lot of different professional languages. So we need students to not just learn one profession; we need them to learn the skills for crossing those professional boundaries, and to have the curiosity and desire to do that.

I think it makes perfect sense that in a lot of ways the Honors Program reflects the mission of the whole college, and is doing what the whole college is doing, and here we have a place to do some of that in an experimental way. Faculty can teach courses they've never taught before and try them out. They can try out a 1-credit slow-read course, or try out a 1-credit really experimental course. I think that's exciting.

What ideas, tweaks or overhauls do you have in mind for the program that might improve on that mission and promise?

I think my first answer to that is that I'm definitely in a phase of listening to people, and I'm not ready to provide a program or vision for overhaul yet. There are some things that I've heard that are clearly things we are going to build on. The steering committee is already really committed to increasing the diversity of the Honors Program. That's a vision I share, and I'm working with the Admissions staff to make that a reality. I need to do a lot more listening before it's clear what changes need to be made. I need to listen to people all over campus and hear what's working really well and where are the places we might want to do things a little bit differently?

We have a really excellent program, so I think in a lot of ways what's wonderful is to come in and see all of this emotion and commitment to honors, and get to step into an organizational role with a program that is really excellent. There are a lot of people that make Honors work and make these opportunities for students work really well. It's a big team. 

I think one of the perspectives I bring to this work directing the Honors Program is to think about working with students on leadership building. I think the Honors Program is a really excellent leadership-building process, an opportunity to think about how we cultivate leadership and the best ways for really supporting students as leaders and helping them do their work. It's sometimes really challenging for people who take on leadership not to end up being set up with huge jobs, overwhelming responsibilities, and left unsure of how to work with others to accomplish things. I think of the Honors Program as a real opportunity to support students in learning leadership skills that will involve building teams and relationships.

I guess that's my vision for myself too, as someone who's responsible for a large and complex program: really building a team that is ready for the job.

What have you heard from Honors students about their experiences so far, and what suggestions have they offered you as the new director?

In my first communication of the semester to students, via the blog and email, I asked specifically for suggestions.  I put a link in to a survey. I'm really excited to hear what they have to say. I asked them specifically about what's going well, how involved with Honors are they, what have been some of their achievements they want me to know about, and also what's been hard, what's been frustrating, what's been difficult, and where are the places we need to approve. I look forward to hear.

I’ll also mention that Honors adopted a new curriculum that involves five best practices: academic challenge, civic engagement, scholarly achievement, cultural immersion, global citizenship. Those are built into the curriculum for Honors students. 

With the new curriculum that was implemented, we're still learning how to make Honors work well for students in programs that have a lot of existing requirements. The vision and the mechanics of the curriculum are such that it really ought to be possible. Each requirement of Honors has a way to satisfy it through taking a course, and also a way to satisfy it without taking a course. That flexibility is built into the design of the program, and I think in practicality I need to have some more conversations with people around campus to see if there are ways that we're bumping into challenges for students. 

What are you hoping to accomplish with the Honors Program in the remainder of this academic year?

[Motioning around her new office in the Peggy Ryan Williams Center, in a suite shared with the Center for Civic Engagement, with unpacked boxes stacked near her desk.]

This is sort of a metaphor: Move into this new space and really build on the excellent program, faculty, students and curriculum that we already have. Our being here in this space is intended to help us facilitate collaborations with the Center for Civic Engagement. As that center is really growing, expanding and deepening its work, I think we have some really exciting opportunities to strengthen the support that we're able to offer Honors students for the civic engagement part of their work, and get even more creative about how we do it.

We already have excellent trips and program activities and residence hall activities; we'll keep doing all of that stuff. We'll build an excellent course schedule for the fall, and make plans for next year building on that.

I think the moving in and running this excellent program, in addition to listening and wanting to hear what other feedback folks have, are the main things on my plate for this semester. 

What would you like to be able to say the program accomplished by the end of the upcoming 2017-18 academic year? 

We play a great role in recruitment and retention, with excellent rates for students through Honors. We want to keep doing that, and if anything improve our ability to do that. Those numbers fluctuate a little bit year-by-year, but we really want to keep that up.

And I think for me personally, I'd like to, by the end of that year, really have a sense that I've had the opportunity to get to know all the different units around campus that work with Honors and hear who they are, what they do and what role they play in providing these opportunities for our students. But I also want to be thinking about even more collaborations and ways of integrating work.

I don't have a new vision or an explicit platform yet, but really just doing what we do well and doing that in a responsive and thoughtful way to the needs of students, faculty and administration. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I first came to Ithaca College as a 12-year-old for the Ithaca Suzuki Violin Summer Institute. I have a sweatshirt from Ithaca College from when I was 12 — that still fits, because back then we wore things really baggy. When I first came to campus as a faculty member for my interview, I remember seeing the view and having this very visceral memory of “Oh, I really know this place!” So it's cool to come back to a place that I had the opportunity to visit as a kid, playing “Mississippi Hotdog” on the violin at age 12. I guess what that means in terms of Honors and my professional role is that I have a real appreciation for the diversity of opportunities here at IC.