GSU Honors College boosted by first dean, key gifts

Veteran faculty collaborate to support rising juniors who are Honors students in GSU’s newest college

The first Rhodes Scholar from Georgia State University will most likely come out of the new Honors College, which is celebrating the arrival of its first dean, Larry Berman, and significant gifts from two longtime faculty supporters.

The Honors College – an integral part of GSU’s strategic plan to be a national model for undergraduate education – supports the university’s brightest independent thinkers who seek interdisciplinary solutions to global issues. An appetite for discovery, imagination and responsibility push these students to make a difference in the world. Honors students expect to find bold, creative solutions to critical needs.

Those ideals are modeled by a pair of veteran Honors professors. Regents Professor Robert Sattelmeyer’s leadership of the preceding Honors Program laid a university-wide foundation for the Honors College. He and his wife, Leigh Kirkland, set up the Kirkland-Sattelmeyer Endowed Scholarship.

J. Mack Robinson College of Business Professor Nancy Mansfield recruits and mentors high-achieving students, and teaches Honors seminars in business law. Mansfield made her endowed scholarship gift to the Honors College through her role as trustee of the Dugald W. Hudson Charitable Trust – the legacy of a GSU professor who mentored her.

Boosting those who bloom later

Like plants that take a while to bloom, some Honors students blossom later in their academic careers. For GSU rising juniors with an exemplary record, the funds from Sattelmeyer and Mansfield are expected to become an attractive incentive.

“A number of freshman and transfer Honors students come into their own and thrive once they are exposed to GSU’s exciting Honors College academic environment – getting involved in research with senior faculty, taking on campus leadership roles and participating in wonderful internship opportunities,” Honors College Dean Larry Berman said.

“This merit scholarship would provide a continuing incentive for Honors students to perform at their highest levels and better enable them to prepare to compete for the most prestigious post-graduate scholarships, most competitive graduate programs and job opportunities. All of this intends to support our GSU students making a difference in improving our world.”

“A complete transformation”

Sattelmeyer, 65, shared the Honors students’ thirst for something more than rote learning. As an academic, he had felt pulled into 19th-century American literature by the promise of challenging ideas, writing and language. Unlike professors who gravitate toward their most advanced masters and doctoral students, Sattelmeyer went the other direction.

“The longer I was at Georgia State, the more interested I became in undergraduates,” he said of his involvement in the Honors Program, which began in 1975 within the College of Arts and Sciences.

“We have so many amazing students, many from first-generation and immigrant families, who don’t know what they are capable of and the opportunities available to them. It’s been tremendously rewarding to build a program and see them flourish.”

Honors students are recruited from GSU’s top freshman applicants to GSU. For fall 2011, the average score was a 1295 SAT (math and verbal only) or a 29 ACT Composite score. The average high school GPA was a 3.8.

The number of Honors students has grown to more than 1,300 students across the university’s 62 majors. Their benefits include smaller classes, study abroad and research opportunities.

As GSU expanded and its diverse pool of bright students deepened, Sattelmeyer was himself energized.

“We have changed the demographics here in a huge way,” he said. “In the mid-1990s, GSU would get in 500 to 600 freshmen, and about half were fully qualified. Now we get in 3,000 and they are all fully qualified. I don’t think any other university has done such a complete transformation.”

Sattelmeyer saw over and over the reward of helping launch these bright newcomers.

One such Honors student puzzled over an easy question on an application for a prestigious fellowship: “We are trying to achieve diversity in our pool. Tell us something about yourself.”

“She said she really liked music,” Sattelmeyer recalled. “She didn’t answer that one parent was from Haiti and the other from Bangladesh, two of the poorest countries in the world. Sometimes our students have amazing back stories that we have to dig out of them.”

Advice is important, but the pipeline of brilliance is fed through funding.

“Having gotten to know how deserving our students are, I can’t think of anything better to invest in,” Sattelmeyer said.

“For those students who don’t come in with a full scholarship, who have blossomed and found themselves, they could really use this boost to postgraduate work, such as med school, or for travel and research. I talked to Nancy [Mansfield]and she seemed to be happy with the idea of starting a program that would have that focus.”

Engaged in learning, Atlanta and the world

“I thought that was a splendid idea,” Mansfield said, picking up the story about the scholarship gift.

“It’s an unmet need, and this could be the start of something good. One of the real joys of making this gift is that the personal and professional are so aligned. You are shaped by people in your life and experiences, and education is what I believe in. I always tell my students that it is a privilege to have a good education.”

Mansfield came to GSU through the vision of a veteran GSU educator, Dugald W. Hudson, who from 1958 to 1988 taught risk management and insurance and founded the department’s legal studies program at the business college.

Hudson heard Mansfield give a paper at a professional conference and recruited her. Because he and his wife had no heirs, he appointed Mansfield his trustee. A professor emeritus, Hudson died in 2005.

“We were lifelong friends,” said Mansfield, “He believed in me and set a good mark.” The mark was high for her, and she set the same for GSU Honors students.

A precocious learner – attracted by “the joy and rigor of learning” – Mansfield felt pulled into academic life after earning a law degree. The more she learned, the more she saw that she needed and could learn.

While raising her two children, she took on other roles at GSU, such as directing the Freshman Learning Communities. Though she did not study abroad in her student years, she traveled to teach in Japan, China and South America on behalf of GSU and its Executive MBA program.

The breadth of her experience made her want to share the same with the next generation. When Sattelmeyer asked her to help expand the Honors Program, “my DNA seemed like a good fit because of my own academic career,” she said. “I also saw in him a total integrity about getting the job done, even with no resources and little space. The Honors College is a tremendous legacy that I admire Bob for.”

She holds the ideal of an honors education inextricably bound with service and participation in the surrounding community, which just happens to be her hometown. She is a fourth-generation Atlantan.

While teaching the course, “Healthcare: How does the system work?” she took Honors freshmen behind the scenes at Grady Memorial Hospital’s emergency room.

“Atlanta is a learning lab,” she said. “Students come to Georgia State because of its urban environment, its connections to the city, its cultural life and arts. Community service is seen in the context of learning real leadership skills, and as the Honors College grows, our students will graduate with a portfolio that includes involvement in their university, their city, and globally.”

Like Sattelmeyer, Mansfield wants her gift to address the difficult struggles faced by many GSU students. “I have students who work two and three jobs outside of attending class,” she said. “They are making a commitment to come to GSU and often do not have the resources. Funding like this can mean they can go to school, or for others, provide the leverage to get them even more involved with campus.”

Opening doors

While Berman’s arrival launches the Honors College and paints a bright future, Mansfield and Sattelmeyer are also motivated by the strong history of the Honors Program that reflects the rapid progress of GSU.

“What I’ve seen at GSU is a tremendous transformation, and it’s been so exciting to see that change,” Mansfield said. “The students have really enriched my life and given me the chance to use my talents to give back to the university and have the fun of working with them.”

What connects these gifts, the program and now the Honors College is a belief that specialized education for some will lead to a better world for all.

“I believe that an honors education should allow students to experience what William Blake referred to when he wrote,  ‘In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors,’” Berman wrote in his welcome to students. “Opening doors is the essence of an honors education.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424