Is the Honors Program Saint Mary’s Best Kept Secret? Not Anymore.

Established in 2007, the rigorous living-learning community is welcoming more members than ever before. And it has introduced a new annual tradition: bringing together the entire SMC community to showcase student research and creative work.

by Hayden Royster | October 23, 2023

This past spring brought the inaugural Saint Mary’s Student Research and Creative Works Conference, featuring 350 presentations and drawing scores of attendees. Yet the whole event began, rather unexpectedly, in awed silence.

Stepping into the Moraga Room of the SMC Soda Center on a Thursday afternoon in May, one would have seen rows of student presenters—in blazers, pantsuits, and all manner of business attire—many standing beside their research posters, quietly facing northwest. There, in the corner of the room, Aria Querubin ’24 was draped over a grand piano, her one hand plucking the strings while simultaneously running her other fingers along the keys. This performance was her conference presentation: “Black Earth,” a contemporary piano composition by Turkish composer Fazil Say. 

Querubin moved languidly, yet decisively, her shoulder-length hair billowing behind her. After she played her final note, the room echoed with applause.

Across the room, Demetri Papageorge ’24 grinned. This was all a stark contrast to how his Honors Program experience began in 2021 amidst COVID—alone, on Zoom, in his childhood bedroom in South San Jose. During the height of the pandemic, the Honors program met online, and Papageorge regularly attended virtual hang-outs and discussion groups, gradually befriending other academically-minded students like himself. “It was truly my community when I was living at home that first year,” he says. 

Aria Querubin ’24 performing at a grand piano in Soda Center
Awed silence: The conference began with a performance by Aria Querubin ’24. / Photo by Francis Tatem

At the Research and Creative Works Conference, that community was all around him, with fellow students presenting on everything from the waning of Japan’s pacifism to the effects of climate change on redwoods. “It definitely feels like a culmination,” Papageorge told me at the time. 

For Papageorge, the most impactful part of the Honors Program has been the relationships he has forged—with peers, certainly, but with professors and alumni as well. “Connections are how you grow, how you change, how you improve yourself,” he says. “And the best way to make connections here at Saint Mary's is the Honors Program.”

No More Hidden Gems

Prior to 2023, the Honors Program hosted a smaller research conference for members, with some 30 students presenting. This year the Honors Program invited participation from the wider Gael student community. The response was overwhelming: more than 300 sign-ups within a matter of days. “It became clear that if you invite students, they will want to show their stuff,” says Honors Program Director Helga Lenart-Cheng.

Along with the hundreds presenting, it felt like most of the rest of the student body was there to see the ideas and creativity on display. Soda Center was a sea of posters, tri-folds, videos, and PowerPoints, with a sizeable lagoon on the patio outside. As I wove through the aisles, I saw Jared Ralleta ’24 explaining the research he conducted on a NASA expedition to the New Mexico desert; a few months later, this same posterboard will earn him second place at the NASA Exploration Science Forum 2023. I also passed Isabella Santavicca ’23, class valedictorian, who may have had the most intriguing poster title of all: “The Effect of Button Color and Researcher Attire on Unprompted Action.” Later, I took a seat in a smaller conference room, where Honors student and Aquinas Award-winner Molly Gilbert ’23 displayed the digital illustrations she created to accompany Dante’s Divine Comedy and the epic poem Beowulf. In August, she would begin pursuing her MsC in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

If this conference was a high point for Papageorge and his Honors peers, it is also a testament to the program’s growth over the past 16 years. Established in 2007, the Honors Program was envisioned as a rigorous academic community, where high-achieving students are paired with mentors, receive scholarships and awards, and pursue their unique research interests with the guidance of faculty experts. In 2009, then-director Mary Volmer ’01, MFA ’05 described the budding program as uniquely Lasallian. “Saint Mary’s Honors students understand that a Lasallian education is not about competing for grades, but about contributing to and benefiting from a larger academic community,” she told the SMC NewsCenter. 

Demetri Papageorge '24
For Demetri Papageorge '24, the 2022–23 Resident Advisor for the Honors Living Learning Community, the conference felt "like a culmination." / Photo by Francis Tatem

The program’s first graduating class in 2011 included 15 students. The Honors cohort beginning in Fall 2023 is nearly ten times larger—with 140 first-year and transfer students, the largest cohort yet. That brings program participants to 280; put another way, around one in every ten undergrads at SMC is currently an Honors student. 

The “larger academic community” that Volmer once envisioned was on full display at the conference. And in Lenart-Cheng’s view, the whole college benefits from it. She’s not fond of the idea of hidden gems, she says. “We sometimes talk about the Honors Program as a ‘hidden gem.’ But why? Why are we hiding it?”

A Web of Support

The students who typically gravitate to the Honors Program are intellectual omnivores: Theatre majors curious about neuroscience, Business majors passionate about manga. For Papageorge, a Politics major planning to practice law, the program allows him to dive deeper into elements of political philosophy. At the student conference, he presented on “The Meaning of Feminist Democratic Representation”—animatedly describing the links between Gilles Deleuze’s “dogmatic image of thought” framework and the concept of statist realism.

He was persuasive and personable, dressed in dark jeans and a heathered navy button-up. It’s no surprise Papageorge is captain of the College’s debate team; one can easily envision this curly-haired fourth-year student someday commanding a courtroom. His one regret, he confided, was that he could only adapt five pages of his research paper, not the entire 50.

Helga Lenart-Cheng in her offivc
Program director Helga Lenart-Cheng has two goals for Honors students: "I want to support them, and I want to challenge them.” / Photo by Haley Nelson

Lenart-Cheng assured me that Papageorge’s lengthy essay went far beyond the required 12-15 pages. She knows a bit about going above and beyond herself. Fluent in five languages, the Global Studies professor and recent Fulbright scholar holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard; she has taught more than 30 different courses at Saint Mary’s, including Autobiography, French Food and Fashion, and upper-level German. Her recent book, Story Revolutions, explores how personal narratives, from diaries to Instagram posts, can be and have been wielded as political tools. 

Since taking responsibility as director in 2020, Lenart-Cheng has found the role immensely gratifying. “I am absolutely blown away by the students in Honors,” she says. Those in the program largely drive their own learning, so her goals for them are twofold: “I want to support them, and I want to challenge them.”

That support starts day one, when first-year Honors students move into their Living Learning Community in Aquinas Hall. Lenart-Cheng specifically selected Aquinas for its conjoined, suite-style dorm rooms, hoping to foster a “sense of cohort.” And beginning last school year, these students are also enrolled in the same Collegiate Seminar—a signature piece of Saint Mary’s liberal arts curriculum, where students discuss and delve deep into foundational works of literature, philosophy, science, and history. From there, Honors provides its students with a wealth of resources, from a network of alumni and faculty mentors to a regularly updated database of research and scholarship opportunities.

Molly Gilbert at the 2023 SMC Student Research and Creative Works Conference
Isabella Santavicca '23 presenting at the conference
A larger academic community: Aquinas Award-winner Molly Gilbert '23 (above) and class Valedictorian Isabella Santavicca '23 presenting at the conference / Photos by Francis Tatem

Demetri Papageorge is taking advantage of all the support he can. He’s grateful for the database curated by Lenart-Cheng and Connor McCaslin, the new Program Coordinator. “They find research grants that people can apply for, conferences to join, even publications where we can publish our work,” he says. “It’s incredibly helpful.” And every few weeks, Papageorge checks in with his assigned alumni mentor: attorney Randy Andrada ’73, owner and principal of Oakland-based Andrada & Associates.

Not content to just participate, Papageorge is helping shape the culture of Honors. In Fall 2022, he joined the Honors Program Commission, the program’s student governing body. The Commission puts on events to bolster the Honors community while also recruiting current and prospective students.

Papageorge also served as the Resident Advisor for the Living Learning Community in Aquinas this last school year, which was a “fantastic experience,” he says. “The great thing about Honors students is that, yes, they are absolutely busy, but they also want to get engaged.” Whether it was a service day at the Legacy Garden, delving into The 1619 Project for the hall’s weekly book club, or watching Warriors basketball games and chowing down on chicken tenders, Honors students showed up for his events. He has been there for them, too, counseling them through their various projects and the rigors of the program. 

“Connections are how you grow, how you change, how you improve yourself,” says Demetri Papageorge ’24. “And the best way to make connections here at Saint Mary's is the Honors Program.”

Challenged and Energized 

Of course, the Honors Program is about more than social, academic, and professional support; it exists to challenge students who want to be challenged. To graduate with an Honors Medallion, the highest recognition an Honors student can receive, they must complete three “contracts,” which consist of in-depth research projects guided by a faculty expert.

These contracts are often seen as a primer for graduate school, given that they’re entirely student-initiated, Lenart-Cheng says. They also vary dramatically in subject matter and even format: “We had a student design a rover for Mars that won a NASA award two years ago,” she says. “We also have a student who created a children’s book about the connection between science and religion.”

Honors students are required to publicly present their research at least once, whether at a regional or national conference, or at Saint Mary’s. Papageorge’s conference presentation began as a contract, which he worked on alongside Professor of Politics Patrizia Longo. He found the contract experience rewarding, intellectually but also personally. “Your relationship with your professor grows in ways that, until you experience it, you can’t foresee,” he says. “Writing a 50-page paper with Professor Longo, we were constantly talking about and bouncing ideas off of each other, and it was really exciting. It was an energizing experience.”

2023 SMC Student Research and Creative Works Conference
The response to the first Research and Creative Works Conference was overwhelming: more than 300 sign-ups within a matter of days. / Photo by Francis Tatem

Students have the opportunity to lead colloquiums on whatever fascinates them. On any given afternoon, a third- or fourth-year Honors student will take their seat at the head of a seminar table, flanked by first- and second-years as well as anyone who stops by—sessions are open to the entire Saint Mary’s community. The colloquium leader will present a brief overview of their chosen topic; past subjects have ranged from Jungian psychology to zombie survival hacks. Then the discussion commences. If you stopped by in mid-September, you would have found a group of undergraduates unpacking the philosophical underpinnings of the Hunger Games or examining the implications of gene editing in algae. 

There may be no better snapshot of the Honors community than the colloquiums. By attending, students do receive points toward their Medallion, but it doesn’t earn them extra credit or any course credit at all. It’s enrichment purely for enrichment’s sake. That’s the value of Honors, in Papageorge’s view. 

“I think in college, and with school in general, there can be this sense of, ‘Why am I doing the work that I'm doing?’” he tells me. “But with the Honors Program, it all feels purposeful. You shape the projects and topics you dive into each semester.” 

LEARN MORE about Saint Mary's Honors Program and how you can get involved.

Want to support living-learning communities like Honors? CONSIDER GIVING.

Are you an alumnus of the program? Be sure to RSVP for the Honors Alumni Luncheon during Homecoming: Saturday, November 11, at 1 p.m.

READ MORE: Honors Student and Aquinas-Award Winner Molly Gilbert '23 is Edinburgh-Bound

Hayden Royster is Staff Writer at the Office of Marketing and Communications for Saint Mary's College. Write him.