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Enduring Value: The Honors College Experience Pays Off in Graduates’ Careers

A defining feature of the Honors College is its academic diversity. Students in any undergraduate major at Oregon State University can pursue an honors degree, and the course requirements are intentionally broad to allow for tailoring a curricular experience to individual ambitions.

All honors students, though, are required to complete a thesis. The thesis is a significant piece of original research and writing, developed by students with the guidance of a faculty mentor. For many graduates, it represents the most challenging component of the honors degree — and the most rewarding. Indeed, alumni have found that the thesis continues to provide skills and benefits even years after its completion.

Standing out in the crowd

Nearly 20 years after earning her degree, Meadow Clendenin’s Honors College thesis helped her land her dream job. 

A corporate attorney in Dallas, Texas, Meadow (H.B.A. in Business Administration, ’99) unexpectedly found herself looking for a job in 2017. As she sat in front of an interview panel, working to distinguish herself from the many other qualified candidates for a prestigious position at Toyota, one thing in particular set her apart: her HC thesis.

Meadow Clendenin

“It jumped off my résumé because I didn’t have experience working in the auto industry, but I had spent more than a year researching marketing in the U.S. and Japanese auto industries and had a minor in Japanese language and culture,” Meadow says.

Meadow’s thesis experience not only helped her win that job, becoming managing counsel for Toyota North America, but also gave her insight into the corporate culture she joined. From her research, she was familiar with Kaizen — the concept of continuous improvement at every level of a company — and the consensus-driven management style commonly used in Japan.

“It was nice to walk into a company, even though the industry was brand new to me, where I had that knowledge,” she says — knowledge derived from an experience that helped her open this new chapter in her career.

A career head start

The honors thesis, especially when combined with other experiential learning, can even lead to a job offer before students even graduate. It did for Gertrude Villaverde, who earned her H.B.S. degree in Energy Systems Engineering at OSU-Cascades in 2019.

Gertrude Villaverde

Gertrude was among the first students to join the Honors College when it expanded to the Bend campus, and the opportunity to complete in-depth research, writing and presenting at a level more typical for graduate school was a major draw.

Her thesis, a proposal for a hydrogen/natural gas energy system, won third place in an international competition, which got the attention of Energy 350, an energy efficiency consulting firm in Portland. While completing a MECOP internship at A-dec in her senior year, Gertrude worked with Energy 350 on data logging and analysis for a lean manufacturing project.

“They liked the way we worked with each other and how quickly the project was implemented,” Villaverde says. She joined the company immediately after graduation in April 2019 and was recently promoted.

Beyond academics

In addition to what students learn about their topic, the thesis process helps students develop valuable, transferable skills that can be applied in any career field.

According to Honors College Dean Toni Doolen, the thesis requirement is designed to give students the opportunity to not only become experts in a specific area, but to build research and communication abilities that can be applied in any career field.

“We don’t just require that they engage in research and scholarship. They actually disseminate what they do to the scholarly community,” Toni says. “A huge part of the learning is in documenting what you’ve learned, being able to do that in writing, talk through it with folks who are experts and explain the work in an accessible way. That’s one of our learning outcomes.”

Another skill they develop is resilience. “Many of the students who come into the Honors College don’t have a lot of experience with failure,” Toni says. “Like with any research, it never turns out like you thought it was going to. What an amazing life lesson!”

Knowing that setbacks are to be expected, the Honors College has built support structures, including guidance from faculty mentors, to keep students encouraged and moving forward.

Gertrude, for one, acknowledges that the thesis “may seem daunting, but if you’re aiming for excellence, this is the way to go.” The good news? “You will get more than you imagined out of this,” she says.

Exploring across disciplines

Esther Vega

One unique aspect of the honors thesis is that it does not have to be in the student’s major field of study. In fact, the Honors College encourages theses that combine disciplinary perspectives. Toni says this adds value to the thesis because it develops students’ ability to work across fields. Plus, it allows them to explore other areas where they have interests and talents.

Esther Vega, for example, is an industrial engineering major, studying the science of optimization and efficiency in systems. The system she chose to study for her thesis was one close to her heart: K-12 education and building connections between teachers and Latinx parents. Her research found common ground in teachers’ and parents’ desire that their students excel, along with practical strategies to promote engagement.

For mechanical engineering major Robyn Wells (H.B.S. ’19), it was her love for playing in the Oregon State marching band that led to her thesis topic: the physical impacts of band members’ workload after a football gameday. The thesis gave Robyn real-world experience in ergonomics and human factors analysis for product development — skills she’s now able to use in her job as an engineer at Sound Devices, a company in Wisconsin that designs and builds equipment for the TV and movie industry.

Robyn says the Honors College “helped prepare me for starting [the] next stage in my life.” In addition to the thesis, she gives credit to an honors colloquium class, “Last Year Experience,” which included developing job interview skills, insights from OSU alumni on their career paths and goals, learning about personal finance and assessing values.

“This class has been incredibly valuable to me, not only because I learned skills on how to succeed in a career but also because life is about pursuing happiness and fulfillment, and that looks different for everyone,” she says.

Honors College graduates span every major at Oregon State and almost every field imaginable. As Robyn says, there is no single path that defines the honors alumni experience, no single measurement of success or happiness. What does unify her and all graduates of the Honors College is the experience of writing a thesis, building skills that will make a difference — no matter what comes next.

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