by Justin Miller
After an anticipation-filled ride to the Des Moines International Airport, I get out of my friend’s car and pull my luggage out of the trunk. My stomach churns with excitement as we walk in towards the front desk only to drop as we find out that our flight out of Des Moines is going to be very late and we are going to miss our connection to New Orleans, not to mention the start of the entire conference. You see, myself along with seven other honors students from Iowa State University, were selected to attend the 2013 National Collegiate Honors Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana and now we were going to be late.
If I were to compare the frightening experience of this canceled flight to anything else in my collegiate career I’d say it felt a lot like the first time I stepped onto campus as an official student of ISU. I remember that as I waved goodbye to my parents, I couldn’t help but feel a little glee. For the first time in 18 years it was all me. I didn’t have anyone there to give me a hard time for staying up late, nobody to make sure I ate my spinach. However, it was later that night that I realized what going off to college really meant, and it wasn’t long after that the glee faded. I quickly settled into ISU though, mainly through my experiences in Honors. Fortunately, not unlike the beginning of my college career, my airplane-related sadness ended quickly. We were able to reschedule flights out of Des Moines the following day and were only a day late to the conference. Walking out of the airport in New Orleans was an incredible relief. WE HAD ARRIVED. Though I’d seen palm trees before, it was still shocking to see them down the middle of the street outside of our hotel. It was a very drastic change from the cornfields of Iowa! Without too much exploring, we settled into bed, eager to see what the next day and the conference would bring. It did not disappoint.
We woke up to a breakfast with the other approximately 2,000 attendants before attending academic sessions of our choosing, this was perhaps one of the coolest parts of the conference. Every attendant, both school faculty and student, was there because they were selected as a representative from their school, someone to hear what other schools were doing and to bring back ideas. What were we learning you ask? The topics were widespread, ranging from students presenting their senior theses, round table discussions on how to keep STEM majors involved in honors, and faculty eagerly explaining the new change they had made to their program.
This isn’t the first time the Honors Program has been an incredible adventure for me. As someone who’s double majoring in chemical engineering and biochemistry, I haven’t had much time for classes that aren’t required for my degree. That said the Honors Program always has a way of convincing me to take more classes. All freshman in the Honors Program are required to take a one-credit seminar that meets twice a week. This seminar, taught by two sophomore honors students, introduces students to Iowa State, Honors, and other honors students. The sophomore instructors make their own lesson plans and facilitate class by themselves. Above those sophomore leaders is a set of three junior leaders who are in charge of interviewing all the leader applicants and training them to successfully run a classroom. I’ve loved the Honors Program so much that I’ve served in each of these positions in my time at ISU. There’s something about the people and the energy and excitement that they bring to learning, as well as their ability to have fun and be goofy that is unmatched. My fellow Honors students have challenged me to grow, both socially and academically through every interaction I’ve had with them.
As we moved to the second day of the conference the sessions began to wind down. We were given a number of hours in the afternoon to simply go out into the city and explore, and explore we did. We wandered from street to street, passing by small antique shops, bookstores stacked so full that it felt like leaning on a pile of books would topple the entire store, and a Mississippi River much less appealing than the one I’ve grown used to in Minnesota. We let our feet carry us through a New Orleans cemetery (much different from the ones native to the Midwest as they tend to avoid burying people in the ground due to the water levels), and on to a gumbo/jazz festival, before we ended up looping back to the Jackson Square. The city was so incredibly alive with street performers strewn across the French Quarter and people everywhere!
I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away from my experience in New Orleans is that I shouldn’t undervalue what I have, but I shouldn’t overlook all of the possibilities in the world. It is incredibly easy for students to get sucked into their studies so much that they forget the world exists outside of campus. While listening to other conference members talk about their collegiate experiences I was simultaneously amazed by what they were able to do and amazed about what I’ve been able to do. For example, getting a chance to lead a class and train a group of leaders, to be someone who actually gives out a physical grade to students is almost unheard of at other universities, and t’s an experience I’m incredibly grateful for. My teaching experiences have made me realize that I want to continue teaching. The conference also has inspired me to be as active as possible on campus. Hearing how much other students were doing for their school re-energized me. There is way too much happening on campus to simply sit around and be tired. I’m also coming away with a few ideas for changes to ISU’s Honors Program, new friends around the nation, and a working knowledge of the French Quarter (the last one might be questionable).