East Ambler Johnston Hall. Photo by Melanie Trammell.

Letter to the Editor: Honors Residential College Name Change a Break from Tradition

In Commentary, Featured, Letter to the Editor by

Melanie Trammell questions a decision made without student input to rename her community after the university announced that University Honors would be transitioning to an Honors College, changing its name along the way.

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Melanie Trammell portrait.

Melanie Trammell.
Photo by Ginger Harvey.

To begin, I wanted to express how excited I am to be a part of the new Honors College. Even in the short time since its announcement, I have heard a multitude of encouraging remarks about how it will elevate my experience as an Honors student. Many of these pertain to expanding our resource base, enriching the prestige of our department, and discussions about new programs that will address many student needs in the Honors community. In addition, I have had the opportunity to briefly talk to Paul Knox, our new Dean for the Honors College, about what some of those new programs may look like. I believe that many of the ideas that he and the leaders of this university are proposing have been needed for a long time, and I am eager to see where this new direction leads us. Furthermore, I and my peers agree that this change will greatly benefit the Honors Residential College, the community that I have been a part of for the last three years.

However, there is one change that has caused me and several others some concern: the intent to change our college’s name to the Honors Residential Community. I understand that this is seemingly one small change in many in making way for the new Honors College. Even so, I feel like this name denies the identity this community has come to understand for itself, and fails to recognize the impact and importance of a residential college, especially for those who are a part of it.

I was told that the renaming decision came about to avoid confusion in distinguishing between the HRC and the Honors College at large. However, I respectfully disagree with this notion. Many universities have Honors Residential Colleges within their Honors College that exist without issue. What’s more, I feel that any illumination gained by the change will be far outweighed by the impact it will have on our community. To highlight my concerns, I want to touch on how this name change will impact us through an explanation of our self-governance, relationship to Honors, and identity.

First and foremost, residential colleges at Ambler Johnston are places where students belong, learn, and give. These multi-disciplinary, multi-generational living-learning communities thrive with meaningful and sustained relationships among faculty, staff, students, and the worlds they pursue together. In addition, they promote a rich intellectual, cultural, and social context where students “know and are known.” The residential colleges seek self-motivated, lifelong learners, with diverse interests, who will build a community of scholars in the spirit of Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim.

Virginia Tech Honors Residential College

To summarize, the Honors Residential College was created with a focus on the students who comprise it, and the interactions and relationships that help them develop into well-rounded leaders with voices in their communities. This is a model that at its core is founded upon the notion of self-governance. It is an institution that has taught me to take pride in being a HRCulean and believes that my involvement as a student is an integral force in shaping it. Changing the name of my home, without seeking my input or garnering an understanding of the effect it has on me and my community, is completely contrary to everything this community has been built upon and believes in.

East Ambler Johnston Hall. Photo by Melanie Trammell.

East Ambler Johnston Hall. Photo by Melanie Trammell.

Until now, Honors has always been in support of us expressing that self-governance. They have allowed us a voice in helping recruit new members for the Honors Community through application review, and hosting and interviewing potential scholarship recipients during Interview Weekend. They have requested our help in their Honors Director searches, through inviting us to their meetings and interviews, and by asking for our feedback on open forums. We have had the same honor in helping select the new Student Life Coordinators and Faculty Principals of our residential college. Through our relative autonomy, we have also had the chance to resolve complex issues among ourselves. As an example, we have passed an amendment to our charter that dictates that an elected member of our council may keep their title if their GPA falls below the mandate for Honors, thus resolving an unclear intersection of our lives as both Honors students and Honors Residential College fellows.

We have never taken these opportunities to partner with the Honors Program lightly. We understand that few universities allow for such close interaction and voice in matters that typically fall at the administrative level. But we do value them, and we do take advantage of these opportunities in as many ways as are afforded us. Thus, when we woke up to an email that announced the changing of our name, with no prior warning or discussion, we were confused. We were hurt. We felt like the self-governance that for so long has been praised and developed was voided and that our involvement in the Honors Program over the past half-decade had been struck hollow.

But these are only the feelings of those who call the HRC their home today. What about years from now? Our concern extends to how this will affect others after us. To quote one of our alumni, Adam Joslin, a founding resident of the HRC:

“The name and philosophy are married. While this change does not intend to alter the experience for the students, it necessarily will move the student perspective away from the residential college model.”

This new name is built upon nothing except its preservation of a letter in an acronym. There was no attempt to explore this issue together, or give us a semblance of ownership over its outcome.

Our concern is that by placing a focus on the idea of “community” in our name, the founding principles of the HRC based on the residential college model will in time be shifted in accordance. This change severs our connection to our roots. Few freshmen coming into the HRC know what a residential college really is: removing it from our name will make this concept from 14th century Oxford even more foreign to successive generations of our residents. Our old name gave us ties to one of the oldest traditions in education, and in it, we found the sense of ownership that we are encouraged to take as early as our first year seminar. This new name is built upon nothing except its preservation of a letter in an acronym. There was no attempt to explore this issue together, or give us a semblance of ownership over its outcome.

Simply put, we see our name as a powerful part of our identity. We are not only a living learning community. Our intentional relationships with affiliated senior fellows and live-in faculty makes us unique. We are not only a residence hall on campus, we were built on a legacy of self-governance to set us apart. What we are is a residential college. Our name is not trivial, our name is committed to a legacy of elevating the collegiate experience.

Moving forward, we ask that we be given an opportunity to express our concerns and to have a voice in matters of great importance to us. We hope that a reconsideration of our name or a discussion of alternatives would be possible, but at the very least we desire to be heard, to be given acknowledgment that our concerns do matter and to communicate what this name change means to us.

As students, we are very excited about the prospect of being part of an Honors College. What better way to start a new chapter in that program than by initiating a dialogue with students about our concerns in that transition?

Melanie Trammell

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