It’s a rare college where students see their college president helping to move them into dorms, scooping ice cream, judging chili competitions, and moderating comedic apocalyptic scenarios. But President Thomas Kunkel is no ordinary college president, and we are sorry to see him go. Class of 2017 may be the last class to shake President Kunkel’s hand at graduation, but that does not mean that he has not touched every single person at St. Norbert – graduating this year or not. The Honors Program has received his support, mentorship, and guidance for the last several years.
Kunkel says it did not begin to sink in until close to the end of the year that he was actually leaving SNC. “By the end of the semester there’s always issues and things to be dealt with…but then there were all the farewell things on top of it. It’s good but bittersweet too,” says Kunkel. “You start to realize things like ‘oh, this is the last time we’ll do this thing.’” Like many graduates, everything became something to say goodbye to, including the Honors Program. It is bittersweet for the students and staff too, who have relied the president for many things.
Looking back, Kunkel says some of his favorite memories involve moving students into Bergstrom and then following up with them as the year goes on. He enjoyed yearly picnics (and Honors cake!), and especially loved being the emcee at Life Raft.
“A highlight really probably was life raft. It was fun, but I could also appreciate how much fun it was for the students. And it’s always fun to see the faculty getting a little silly. There have been a number of memorable ones: everyone gets really into it and carried away.” Smiling, he says “This year in particular was a really good one.”
Without a doubt, the Honors Program has really grown since Kunkel became the college’s president. “I was glad when I got here that we had a well established and respected honors program, but I think we’ve also been able to build it up. The Honors Program has been pivotal in improving the collective academic accomplishments of our students,” Kunkel says. According to Kunkel, each year SNC students become more and more serious in their studies, which in turn has helped the college become stronger and stronger.
Building on his supportive role, Kunkel has had a strong presence in the academic component of the Honors Program. He taught an Honors tutorial four years ago on Joseph Mitchell, a writer best known for his work in the New Yorker. Kunkel published a biography on Mitchell in 2015.
“It’s really hard to teach classes when you’re the president of a college – your schedule is packed and unpredictable. I’m proud of [the tutorial] though,” says Kunkel. Kunkel goes on to say “I think I’m a pretty good mentor as a teacher, but I don’t think I’m a particularly good ‘teacher-teacher,’ like we have on our faculty. So you guys probably didn’t miss anything.” Many SNC students would disagree!
Kunkel says the most important and engaging part of the Honors Program is the cohort aspect, building on the living and learning community of Bergstrom Hall that almost all Honors first years start off in. A small community of less than 80 students live together sharing three centrally located common rooms. These students also attend one course “Honors 101” and continue to take classes together throughout their college careers – learning to lean on one another for both academic assistance and socialization.
“My sense is that the friendships you are making are very deep and lasting, and that graduating with the honors program you are going to leave with people that you are really close to, and that you’ll remain close to for the rest of your life – and that’s one of the reasons you go to a college like St. Norbert,” says Kunkel.
Students are particularly involved in the Honors Program, Kunkel notes. As the program grows, more and more students apply for Honors, which leads to increased competition. The variety of offerings in courses and involvement is good for both students and faculty.
“I think we have been – thanks to [Dr. Marcie Paul] - trying to keep the Honors Program fresh, mix up offerings to give you options and expand horizons, and also to give our faculty a chance to teach something different, because they really appreciate that kind of spice of life. I really liked all of that, and it has given our program distinction,” says Kunkel. He says he hopes that over the years he has been able to “pull a little oxygen” into programming and resources to develop the program even more.
Kunkel’s decision to leave St. Norbert does not mean that the Honors Program is done developing, however. Kunkel cites his time at University of Maryland – College Park as a potential model for expanding more of the living and learning communities at SNC. There, twelve two-year program halls for first years and sophomores are designed roughly around the different colleges (academic departments). Students interested in media, for example, may choose to live in a hall with other media students, work on outreach together, and socialize with people of similar interests.
“We could do a little bit of that in the Michels program and theme houses, but we are thinking about how we can create honors opportunities maybe over and above the traditional honors community or program – are those the sorts of things we may want to look at? I do think the cohort aspect adds immeasurably to the success and the depth of the experience that the students feel,” states Kunkel. “As we get more and more strong students, we probably want to expand more honors kinds of honors opportunities that still keep it distinctive.”
The departing president then speaks specifically to incoming first years considering the Honors Program: “If they are thinking about St. Norbert (and obviously you are), I would say that if you qualify for the honors program, you definitely should apply. And if you have that opportunity you absolutely should do it.”
The friendship, academic opportunities, and lasting chances for impact at SNC are all reasons Kunkel sees as motivators to join the Honors Program.
“If you come here, being in the Honors Program is going to maximize the likelihood that you’re going to have a really full and enriching experience, and you are going to get exposed to some of the smartest and most creative faculty.”
Lastly, Kunkel has some parting words to the people who make the Honors Program possible. “I would just like to thank Marcie, because she has run the honors program for literally the whole time I have been here. Thanks to John Neary for doing so much to establish it. I have always been impressed with the rigor and creativity that help our program move forward because it’s the right thing to do and also because it’s the smart thing to do. Colleges with good honors programs is most likely a good college.”
So much appreciation and warm wishes to President Kunkel as he moves on from SNC to the next steps in his career and life.