A Customized Academic Experience

Each year, as new students are accepted into Lehigh, a small number of students from that already talented group are selected to participate in the Eckardt Scholars Program, a unique honors program in Lehigh’s College of Arts and Sciences that emphasizes flexibility and interdisciplinary exploration.  

These students are “amazing,” says Augustine Ripa, program director and professor of theatre. “They do everything.”

Eckardt Scholars complete the requisite credits and all other requirements for their respective degrees, but are exempt from taking the college’s distribution requirements—40 credits across the arts, humanities, mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences. This exemption enables them to work with advisers to create a course of study that best suits their interests. Participants complete two Eckardt Scholar seminars and during their senior year complete a large capstone project, typically a thesis, artistic creation or other cumulative project. Eckardt Scholars conduct cutting-edge research and create significant works of art. Some major in multiple disciplines; others receive two—or even three—degrees. All embrace the opportunity to pursue their passions and explore new ones, often with remarkable results.

Accepting the Invitation

Tennessee native and political science student Sara Boyd ’21 chose to come to Lehigh because of her invitation to be an Eckardt Scholar.

Sara Boyd

“I was still pretty on the fence about whether I was going to Lehigh or if I was just going to go to a state school where I had a pretty good scholarship,” she says. But her conversations with Ripa and current Eckardt Scholars during her visit to Lehigh for Candidates’ Day in April 2017 convinced Boyd to enroll. One year later, she says she’s glad she did.

Advice from Ripa before the start of her first semester motivated Boyd to register for a particular course, she says, and “that class has helped me shape what I’m interested in and has given me an amazing relationship with a professor. So all of the luck I feel like I’m having with my classes and with my studies, I wouldn’t be having without the Eckardt Scholars Program.”

Boyd, who would like to someday work in electoral politics, has enrolled in political science and philosophy classes for the upcoming fall semester.

“I love math, but it’s not something that I’m interested in studying,” she says, “so the fact that I don’t have to take a math credit really eases my mind. … I’m fascinated by electoral politics, and there are a lot of opportunities for me to study that from a lot of different dimensions here, which is really cool.”

This spring, Boyd and some of her classmates raised more than $10,000 to lead a group of approximately 150 Lehigh students to Washington, DC for the March for Our Lives. They’ve formed a club, the Student Political Action Coalition, which they plan to file as a nonprofit this summer. They are also exploring the possibility of expanding in other chapters to other universities around the U.S. As a result of their work, Boyd and another Lehigh student were invited to speak at the United Nations about civic activism and youth engagement in politics. 

Not even a full year into her Lehigh experience, “the success we’ve had is unbelievable,” Boyd says.

Making the Most of the Experience

Veronica McKinny ’18 will graduate this May with dual degrees in physics and cognitive science.

Veronica McKinny

“One of the reasons I’m able to do not just two majors but two actual degrees in four years is because of the Eckardt Scholars Program,” she says.

McKinny, who is originally from Kansas City, entered Lehigh knowing what she wanted to study. That doesn’t, however, mean other students need to, particularly if they’re Eckardt Scholars, she says.

“Professor Ripa immediately put me in contact with a lot of influential advisers in my majors, and they were able to help me start figuring out my experience and my research very, very early—earlier than most Lehigh students,” she says.  “[The program] allows you to really get involved in what you want to do. If you don’t know what you want to do, Eckardt allows you to explore.”

McKinny appreciates the community aspect of the program as well.

“It’s this group of very bright people who provide intellectually stimulating conversation, and it’s a good group of friends,” she says. “My cohort really bonded. We enjoy each other’s company.”

That’s the goal of the program, she says: “to get you in contact with people all around so you have a larger network, so you learn something from your peers.”

McKinny’s senior thesis is an interdisciplinary study on how the brain processes prepositions. Next fall she’ll begin a Ph.D. program in physics at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. She plans to take the LSAT this summer, as law school is an option after she earns her doctorate. She’d like to be a liaison between the scientific and policy-making and judiciary communities to increase the conversation between them.

The Eckardt Scholars Program, McKinny says, is what each student makes of it.

“There are both networking and funding opportunities in the program, and it’s up to the student to take advantage of it,” she says. “Knowing that they’re there is half the battle. It’s the responsibility of the student to make the most of the experience, and Eckardt really is what you put into it.”

Freedom to Choose an Academic Path

P. Marios Christodoulou ’18 came to Lehigh from Greece in search of a more liberal academic program in terms of course selection. Academic curricula in Europe, he says, is far more rigid.

Marios Christodoulou

Becoming an Eckardt Scholar has allowed Christodoulou more freedom to select his courses. “[My academic experience] is even less rigid than it would have already been,” he says. It’s also allowed him to pursue both of his passions.

“Besides my interest as a scientist, I also have a strong interest in becoming an artist,” says Christodoulou, who is studying both physics and music. “Doing both of these things at the same time is easy in the U.S., [but] not very easy elsewhere.”

Christodoulou’s senior thesis is a musical composition for orchestra that will be performed at Zoellner Arts Center in May.

“Since it’s not really a static work of art, it needs to be exhibited under the right conditions, which means you need a bunch of players to perform this piece,” he explains. He applied for and won a Strohl Undergraduate Research Grant, which he used to hire the musicians needed to play his 20- to 25-minute piece. The grant covered one-third of the needed funds; the rest was covered by Lehigh’s music department.

Christodoulou will begin a Ph.D. program in physics at Lehigh this fall. He offers some advice for new Eckardt Scholars: “Take whatever courses you want. Just take some obscure thing that you like in the back of your head. … Take more courses in other areas other than your major.”

Diving Right In

Like Boyd, Collin Missimer ’21 also came to Lehigh because of the opportunity to become an Eckardt Scholar.

Collin Missimer

“It seemed far too good of an offer to pass up,” says Missimer of receiving his invitation to the program. “I’m a very big history person. That’s what I’m studying here. And I’m decent enough at a lot of the math and science subjects—I was good enough at them to do pretty well in high school and get into Lehigh, but they're not really where my passion lies. The ability to study what I love while not having the general requirements … and still getting a good college education, that just sounded like a dream to me. I was able to dive right into the things I’m passionate about.”

After graduating from Lehigh, Missimer would like to “do something with history”: teaching, perhaps, or museum curation or some kind of work with the National Parks Service historic sites.  He appreciates the opportunity the Eckardt Scholars program has afforded him to “explore without restriction.”

He realizes, though, that that freedom can be a source of stress for some students.

“I know some people like to have that rigid academic requirement, they really need to be on that ‘I have to take this class and then this class and then this class’ kind of schedule. But if you’re the kind of person that just wants to go to college and study what you love and you really just want to do what you're passionate about, then this program is a really great fit for that.”

Exploring Options

Helen Abebe ’21 originally didn’t want to leave her home state of California to attend college, but she eventually agreed to look out-of-state, at the urging of her high school guidance counselor.

Helen Abebe

“I'd gone to a big public school before, and I’d also gone to a small private high school, and I definitely preferred the smaller school. I loved that about Lehigh. I also have always been all about STEM. I love biology and thought for the longest time that I wanted to go into research. The fact that Lehigh was so big on research even though it was a small school—that was definitely a big factor for me.”

Abebe applied to Lehigh early decision, got in, and was invited to become an Eckardt Scholar.

“I thought it was really cool,” she says. “I’ve always had a wide variety of interests, even though I do like biology, and so I thought it was cool that this program would give me the flexibility to explore all of them.”

Abebe is majoring in biology but would like to minor in another discipline.

“I’m not 100 percent sure what it is yet, but [the Eckardt Scholars program] has allowed me at this point each semester to take a very different class,” she says. In her first semester she took a course on media and society in the journalism department; this spring she’s taking a class on the history of modern medicine through Lehigh’s Health, Medicine and Society (HMS) program.

If invited to the program, “there’s not really a reason not to join,” she says. “It’s not meant for anyone who’s focused on or interested in one thing. Being in the program doesn’t mean you already know what you want to do. A lot of us are starting to change our minds or rethink things. Just being in the program gives you a better ability to do that. The flexibility in the schedule allows you to not feel like you’ve wasted time or that you’ll fall behind because you want to do something else.”

Opportunities Abound

When Julia Nelson ’18 was invited to become an Eckardt Scholar, she thought it would be a good fit.

Julia Nelson

“[The program was] a big draw for me at Lehigh and helped me decide to come here. I thought that being in the Eckardt Scholars Program would give me the most opportunity, and I felt like Lehigh would have offered more opportunities than any other school I applied to or visited.”

It certainly did: Nelson will graduate in May with three degrees: a bachelor of science in biology, a bachelor of science in pharmaceutical chemistry and a bachelor of arts in mathematics.

“I came in knowing I liked biology and chemistry in high school, and I had a lot of AP credits, so I  knew I would have room to take on two majors and explore my interests,” she says. “I had to take a couple of math courses for the chemistry degree, and as I was taking the math courses, I realized that I really liked math and didn’t want to not have it in my schedule anymore.  … I had some extra spaces in my schedule to get the math major, so I figured I might as well go for it. It’s really worked out. I’ve had a lot of fun in the math classes I’ve taken.”

Nelson has been conducting research with Marcos Pires, assistant professor of chemistry, and her senior thesis focuses on her work: studying bacterial cell wall synthesis.

Beyond academics, the cohort aspect of the Eckardt Scholars Program has provided an additional benefit, Nelson says.

“It helps with the transition into college because it gives you a family right off the bat, a group of people who at least share similar interests, are intellectually curious and driven individuals who will be just nice people to see around campus. … Everyone is pursuing such different interests. I have friends with multiple majors, or majors and minors, but they’re in fields all across the board. ... So I think that’s been a nice experience.”

Overall, says Nelson, the program offers valuable opportunities to students who know where they’re headed—and those who don’t.

“The Eckardt Scholars Program is a unique opportunity that you wouldn’t get at a lot of other places,” she says. “It gives you individualized attention with special advising, gives you extra flexibility in your curriculum and will really let you explore your interests. It’s great both for people who know what they want to do or have no idea what they want to do.

“If you came to Lehigh knowing you wanted to major in this, your passion is a specific subject, the program is great because without distribution requirements, you’re able to take as many classes in that area as you’d like. If you come to Lehigh a little bit unsure of what you want to study, this program is also great because you have so much flexibility in your schedule that you can try a little bit of everything and kind of take your time figuring out exactly what is the right field for you. I think both ways give you opportunities that you wouldn’t get at other colleges.”

Photos by Christa Neu 

Julia Nelson photo by Jason Wang 

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