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At this college, academic excellence requires passion for the social good

At New Jersey’s Rutgers University, a new honors program for undergraduates is redefining academic excellence. Students accepted into the highly competitive Honors Living Learning Community (HLLC) study critical social issues and prove their commitment to becoming “change-makers." While the program is small, its early outcomes have been promising. Hari Sreenivasan has the story from Newark.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now we continue our series on Rethinking College with a look at a university that's redefining what it means to be an honors program.

    Hari Sreenivasan went to Newark to see how Rutgers University is tapping into students' passions for working on social justice as part of a special program.

    It's part of our weekly segment on education, Making the Grade.

  • Student:

    If you don't accept me, then that doesn't mean I'm not a man.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Seven a.m. is early for any college. And these honor students have decided to take on a complicated topic, what it means to be a man of character.

  • Student:

    Real men of character are not afraid to share what they have been through.

  • Timothy Eatman:

    The test of a man is the fight that he makes, the grit that he daily shows, the way that he stands upon his feet and takes life's numerous bumps and blows.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The students are part of a new scholars program at Rutgers University in Newark called Honors Living-Learning Communities, or HLLC.

    Professor Timothy Eatman is their dean.

  • Timothy Eatman:

    A man when driven against wall still stands erect is the man who will win.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Honors programs are popping up all over the country. It's a way for colleges to attract top talent, but Rutgers in Newark is trying something different. It's not just great grades and test scores that get a student into the program. It's actually their passion for social justice.

  • Timothy Eatman:

    It's a bold, imaginative move to identify dynamic young people change agents for the future.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The application process for HLLC is tough and competitive. Last year, 1,200 students applied for 80 positions. Applicants are interviewed for several hours, first in groups, then one-on-one if they move forward.

  • Marta Esquilin:

    Welcome to the HLLC women of color space group.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Professor Marta Esquilin, an associate dean of the new program, says honor students are encouraged to choose careers that improve society, not just ones that make money.

  • Marta Esquilin:

    We're revolutionizing honors. And what that means for us is identifying students who we really believe are going to be change makers and change agents in our world.

    The way people think about honors is really limited. And usually people think about SAT scores. But you need a lot more than the ability to do well on a test to change the world.

  • Nancy Cantor:

    Why do we want change makers?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nancy Cantor is the chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark.

  • Nancy Cantor:

    Look what they're inheriting. They're inheriting a world where on the one hand the economy is in great shape and inequality is expanding hugely. They're inheriting a world where there's an architecture of segregation in cities like Newark and communities all over this country, where people literally are living in double segregation of class and race.

    I like to think of that as an incubation space to think about how to create a different world than the one we're living in.

  • Marta Esquilin:

    Let's start with the distinction between race and ethnicity.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Honors Living-Learning students study a variety of disciplines, but all are required to earn a minor in social justice. They take special courses, like this one called Negotiating Spaces, Places and Identity, taught by Professor Marta Esquilin.

  • Marta Esquilin:

    It's about connecting effectively with people across communities who are different. And if I effectively know how to navigate lots of communities and lots of different people, I can be an effective agent of change.

    How many people have you seen in leadership roles that step in land mines all the time because they're not culturally competent?

  • Timothy Eatman:

    Stand to your feet if you went to a school, a high school in the city of Newark.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On this day in, a class taught by Professor Eatman called Local Citizenship in a Global World, honors students discuss New York's high poverty and low-performing public schools.

  • Timothy Eatman:

    We want to develop a critical analysis, right, of what it means to navigate this sort of schooling, what the implications are for ideology and political economy and thinking about those things in constant tension.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nearly 50 percent of the honors students are born and raised in Newark, a city we're only 14 percent of the population has a bachelor's degree.

  • Student:

    My mission is to empower the youth, to give them opportunities, to say, I'm the hope for them, so I can be the voice for my people.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    From many, improving Newark is a reason they applied to the honors program.

  • Stacy Tyndall:

    My social justice issue is the fact that black and brown youth are kind of seen as educated criminals and just like they can't be successful.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Stacy Tyndall is a junior majoring in criminal justice. She hopes to go to law school.

  • Stacy Tyndall:

    I ultimately want to be a judge. That's my ending goal. I won't be up there in a seat. I want to be able to give back, especially to youth. And I want to be with juveniles, because that hits home for me and that's my heart.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tyndall is confident she will stay in Newark.

  • Stacy Tyndall:

    Newark is where I was raised. Newark is where I learned about these issues. Newark is where I saw these issue. Newark is my home.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tyreek Rolon is also an HLLC honors student. He was a basketball star in high school who bombed his SAT test, making him ineligible for college scholarships. After high school, he sold cocaine and went to prison for four years.

  • Tyreek Rolon:

    In 2009, I caught a charge for distribution narcotics. My first time being locked up in jail, I got sentenced to a nine-year sentence.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We now at 33, Tyreek says he wants to be part of the solution. He mentors high school students at Newark's West Side High School.

  • Tyreek Rolon:

    So, while I was locked up, I was trying to figure out like, what am I going to do for me? And how am I going to do it?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    His ultimate goal is to get a master's degree in public policy and tackle injustices that affect the formerly incarcerated, like laws that ban them from returning to subsidized housing.

  • Tyreek Rolon:

    Fifty percent of New Jersey's homeless population is that of previously incarcerated people. Convictions do not allow you to live in public housing. The law says that I can't come back home because of my history.

    If I'm homeless, I'm pretty much going to be jobless. So I want to be able to change that law.

    So we're looking at a construction site here. What goes in?

  • Timothy Eatman:

    So this will be the entrance to the building.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    HLLC currently has 222 students, and the university is building a new dorm to house the expanding program. While the numbers remain small, the outcomes so far are promising.

  • Timothy Eatman:

    We had 13 graduates this year. Of the 13, 11 graduated with high Latin honors, right, so summa cum laude with eight. Two of them were magna cum laude. And one was cum laude. And the two that didn't make it of the 13 were just at the threshold.

    To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late. To be late is simply unacceptable for an HLLC scholar.

    Good to see you all today.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In Newark, for the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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