When the James W. Rouse Scholars Program began at Howard Community College 20 years ago, there were no other honors programs like it at any state community college.
Now, as the program celebrates its 20th anniversary, more than 700 students have left HCC as Rouse Scholars, and other community colleges have created similar programs.
"We were unique when the program began, and while there are other community colleges in the country and Maryland now that have programs like ours, they're basically mirror images of ours," said Jerrold Casway, director and co-founder of the Rouse Scholars and history professor at HCC. "It's a real compliment."
The Rouse Scholars program is a selective honors program that challenges students with honors-level course work, leadership development, service learning projects, professional mentoring, international travel and cultural and recreational activities.
While Columbia founder Rouse was not directly involved in the program's founding, Casway said the students emulate the values Rouse treasured, such as fellowship.
There are many testaments to the program's success, Casway said: the fact that Rouse alumni come back to HCC as instructors, close relationships among students and professors and a constant expansion of what the program offers.
"It's a great sense of accomplishment," Casway said. "The students have changed, the faculty have changed, but there's not doubt it has improved. We didn't have a model for this program ... all the changes have been for the better, and we have been strengthened as a result. It's thriving."
Most telling are the stories from the students themselves.
"You can tell the difference between HCC students and Rouse scholars," said Abenah Frempong, 19, a second-year student and Rouse scholar studying occupational therapy. "We're always together, and you always see us together, trying to better ourselves and better each other."
Daliah Halboni, 19, a nursing major, agreed with Frempong.
"It's like we're setting an example, that ... you can still challenge yourself," she said.
"This broaden our horizons, and it couples academic work with a bigger picture, and you learn that it's not about you, it's about building up the community," said Brianna Livesay, who studies naturopathic medicine.
Applying to the program is a "one-shot thing" for incoming HCC students right out of high school, Casway said, and Greg Fleisher, assistant director of the program and associate professor of sociology, said academic excellence isn't the only thing HCC looks for: It also comes down to students who have "leadership potential" and are service-minded.
Largest group yet
Rouse 19 — the cohort group made up of second-year students this year at HCC — is the largest yet, Casway said, with 56 students. A small group that regularly has classes, two seminars and retreats together, and participates in study-abroad and service-learning opportunities together, means the students experience a strong sense of community, Fleisher said.
"Empowering them to take control of their desire to learn, taking things to deeper level, that sets them apart," said Maura Dunnigan, sophomore seminar leader with the Rouse Scholars. The seminars are a key part in making that happen, she said.
"I was always more shy, and for some reason in Rouse classes, I'm not intimidated to speak up and say my opinion, because even though we have debates and differing opinions, we all respect each other," said Yuri Villatlro, 19, a Rouse scholar studying international relations.
Some students, like Halboni, chose HCC over other, traditional four-year colleges because of the Rouse Program. Frempong said she felt there were more opportunities for her because of the Rouse Program — studying abroad and service projects, along with a dedicated, caring, invested faculty, for example. Her cohorts agreed.
"I realized, Rouse is a great way for me to grow as a person, and figure out what I want to do," Halboni said. "It's about the growth of your inner person."
Casway said the program lends academic credibility and substance to HCC, which is still looked down on by some for being a community college. But that stigma is disappearing, Dunnigan said, in part because of programs like the Rouse Scholars.
And as the program grows, so do does the Rouse Scholars community.
"The idea is that it's not just the community here, but the sense of community in the larger society," Fleisher said, reflecting on a recent alumni gathering. "When you look at 20 years, all the students that are bonded because of this, that's gratifying. We have students at all stages of life, but they all see themselves as Rouse Scholars."