Texas Tech University

Sowing Seeds of Change and Watching Success Sprout

Doug Hensley

September 1, 2023

In her first year on the job, Honors College Dean Jill Hernandez launched a series of initiatives that have increased access and accomplishment.

When Jill Hernandez assumed leadership of the Honors College at Texas Tech University, she didn't need the typical one-year on ramp to settle in as dean and all that comes with the position.

“When I came in, I was learning,” she said, “but I didn't have to learn how to be a dean and I felt confident because of that. What I had to learn was Texas Tech and its traditions. And what an amazing thing to learn.”

Hernandez was tabbed to lead the Honors College after serving as dean of the College of Arts & Humanities at Central Washington University for three years. Her official one-year anniversary at Texas Tech is Sept. 15, although she came to campus a little more than a month earlier for a “soft” start.

Over the past 12 months, she has wasted no time keeping her foot on the accelerator as a change agent who has brought a thoughtful and bold vision to the Honors College that is as wide as it is deep.

“I think of leadership in the Honors College in three ways,” she said. “The first piece is administration, which is all about process. The second is management, helping staff in each of our areas as far as how we can improve and change. The third is vision; I dedicate time each week to asking, ‘Why not?'”

Emerging from the various intersections of those queries have been three primary Honors College initiatives that are transforming perceptions while opening additional pathways of access and broadening the college's overall reach.

“The Honors College should serve the university, and when that is happening the Honors College is doing its job well,” she said. “We will amplify the efforts of every other college. That's been my message to my dean colleagues: That we are not meant to be elite and set aside. We are meant to amplify.”

Toward that end, one of the new initiatives is titled HE+. The idea, launched this past spring, is meant to offer a new way for more students to earn honors credit while also allowing more faculty to teach in Honors. 

“One of the number one things I was hearing from students is they were unable to get more Honors classes in their major,” she said. “Then I had a faculty member explain to me why they never taught for Honors. He needed a large class, and Honors is known for its small classes.”

Hernandez had an epiphany. She suggested taking larger classes and embedding within them a zero-credit discussion session open to honors students. The faculty members would then have an opportunity to engage with those students throughout the term. The idea launched with 16 sections across eight colleges and involved 13 faculty members and 111 students.

Color the results outstanding.

“The feedback was universally positive,” she said. “Everybody had a positive experience. We asked students to fill out our qualitative survey who said this was the best honors engagement they had ever had. A faculty member who will repeat this experience in the fall has tweaked the communication piece to improve it for everyone. That's a good thing.”

When the fall semester commenced a few weeks ago, HE+ had expanded to include 75 sections across the university with between 70% and 80% of participating faculty teaching Honors students for the first time. The initiative does not add to operating expenses, impacts retention and is the only such program in the country offered by an Honors College.

“Sometimes, it's just a matter of getting the feedback that says, ‘Wait a minute; this is a problem,'” she said. “Have we thought about the problem in a way that we can fix it?”

The novel approach has not only earned rave reviews on the Texas Tech campus, but it also has caught the attention of academic peer groups. Hernandez and her team have been asked to present the HE+ program at the National Collegiate Honors conference later this year.

“We think it has a chance to be a model for other colleges,” she said, “especially when Honors deans see they can do this in a budgetarily-friendly way.”

HE+ offers a path into the Honors College while a second priority of Hernandez is aimed at keeping Honors students connected to the college. Retention and Resilience Advising moves students with high needs under the purview of a dedicated adviser who guides them through the semester.

“We have to be good partners with faculty who are telling us what they're hearing, and we also have to be good partners with advisers within the colleges,” she said. “One thing I wanted to know when I came in is who we were losing in terms of Honors students leaving us.

“We know there are some students who need high-touch mentoring to help them get through the program. We decided to deploy a program that provided a little extra touch for these high-achieving students. They're high-achieving, so the question might be why would you do that? But I want us to keep our promise to every Honors student.”

The way Hernandez sees it, Honors students are not immune to the same types of issues that strike their peers and disrupt their academic equilibrium – a poor class experience, a bad breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a parent, financial stressors or the COVID-19 pandemic.

To study the matter further, Hernandez and Honors College staff traveled to the University of Texas-San Antonio, which has a similar program in place for non-Honors students. From there, they walked away with a blueprint for their own program.

“We set up four touchstones with these students throughout the course of the semester,” she said. “One was online, and the other three were in-person. We tracked how they were doing and stayed in touch.”

The results from last spring's pilot were impressive with 80% of students (all of whom would have been dismissed from Honors otherwise) in the program meeting concrete objectives of attending mentoring sessions, completing online material and attending Honors events – all of which serves to remind them they belong to a larger community.

“We have these students who do amazing academic work, but if you hear some of their stories, that doesn't mean some of them might not need an extra assist or an extra touch to be successful,” she said.

Like HE+, the advising initiative also will expand this fall to encompass a wider swath of students. Hernandez said the Honors team will zero in on two groups, those who might need extra focus academically and those dealing with possible non-academic events.

The idea could have potential for the university community and beyond. The Honors team will also be presenting the R&R Advising initiative at a conference later this year, and a paper on the project is being reviewed for possible publication in peer literature.

A third priority also possesses a community thrust as Hernandez and her team have sought to revitalize and recharge their house system. From the fall of 2019 to fall of 2022, only 6% of the student body participated in Honors events, discussions and civic engagement. 

“We found that even before the pandemic, students after their freshman year were not engaging in Honors,” she said. “That's a challenge because we want students to feel connected and stay in Honors.”

The fresh approach has put an emphasis on community and competition. Honors has a House Cup championship for which students compete throughout the year by attending a variety of events. They scan their ID card upon attendance and earn points each time for their presence. The system also allows the Honors team to track check-ins by students as well as overall engagement numbers.

“We moved the needle from 6% during that time leading up to September 2022 to 30% between October 2022 and February 2023,” she said. “We gave them the infrastructure for community and connection, and we're really excited about that because we know that type of commitment to co-curricular programming is vital to engagement beyond their first year.”

Critical as each of those objectives might be, they pertain to students already attached to Honors College. Hernandez also wants the college to cast a wider net across the student community and ensure its message is heard. For example, her research shows there are approximately 1,800 students on campus with the academic bona fides to be in the college who are not enrolled.

“We will continue dedicating resources to make sure that we're recruiting these amazing students, but one of the things I have seen from the numbers is right now I have an entire Honors College at Texas Tech that is not in the Honors College,” she said. “What if we invite them to become part of the life and mind and spirit of adventure here at Honors and teach them what it is like to be an honor student at Texas Tech and then see if they want to stay?”

The solution is VIP Admissions, where 150 academically excellent students received a personal appeal complimenting them and inviting them to consider Honors College enrollment.

“All they had to do was accept our invitation and come to our first academic enrichment event,” Hernandez said. “We have four academic enrichment events for them. We have four core values in the college: knowledge, courage, integrity and service. Each of the academic enrichment events are about those core values.”

Students who attend all four events and four additional Honors College activities could become full members of the Honors College eligible to compete for scholarships. Of the first 150 invited, 60 joined the college.

“Tell you what, I have loved these students and loved getting to know them,” she said. “I think in many ways we have a traditional way of thinking about admissions into Honors. But because we are excellent in every measure, we need to broadly welcome people to experience this and help us be more excellent.”

That joy of sharing the Honors experience with as many students as possible is part of what animates Hernandez in her day-to-day dealings as dean. Her eyes light up as she recalls a student encounter one Saturday while she was on campus prior to starting her new job.

“My husband was here helping me set things up, and it was a game day Saturday,” she recalled. “I thought I heard the door, and I walked over, and there was a family looking a little bewildered so I asked them if I could help them.”

The family was visiting campus to learn about Texas Tech, but game day occupied virtually everyone's attention. The family explained to Hernandez that their son was an honors student at a junior college who wanted to check out the Honors College.

Hernandez immediately became their tour guide. She showed them around, pointing out amenities and answering questions. When it was over an hour later, they asked one more favor: Could they get a picture of her and their son together?

“I'd been working here all morning and I told them I looked disgusting,” she said with a laugh. “They said, ‘We want people to know that the dean spent an hour with us on a Saturday.' I thought, ‘Yeah, this is why I'm here.'”

For Hernandez, who had already declined a new office filled with the trappings and décor one might expect of a dean, the meeting confirmed another suspicion: Her place as Honors College dean was as near students as possible.

“If I had been upstairs in that beautiful office, I would have never known about this family and their son,” she said. “I need to be where the students are and talking to them about the Honors College. Our amazing faculty should be teaching for Honors. Our amazing students should be part of who we are. We should be helping strengthen their endeavors.”

It has been a year of change, alterations that have occurred at an atypical pace in the world of higher education. There have been adjustments, and there has been learning, but the progress forward has been worth the push from the top.

“My first questions to our staff here was where do they need help and what are we doing that is working well?” she said. “It was a matter of hearing their stories and for those things working well, we would leave them alone. We were going to focus our attention on what wasn't working was well and address those gaps.”

To their credit, the Honors College team has embraced the vision, seeing it as an opportunity to move forward in bold and provocative ways.

“At a moment of doubt last spring when I was thinking maybe I had rolled out too much, I had someone tell me I couldn't take my foot off the gas,” she said. “The staff here is amazing, absolutely amazing, and they are such an important part of this. And then we also have an administration that supports the Honors College. That's really important too.”

A year later, Hernandez can look back with appreciation for the job she gets to do each day.

“There truly has not been a day when I haven't woken up grateful for being here,” she said. “I tell people that I came to Texas Tech, and I want to tell them why they should too. This is a dream job. Why would I ever want anything else?”