Making Lemonade, Honors Style

COVID-19 Interrupts Annual Honors Conference, but Students Make the Most of It

screenshot of honors conference

May 2020

By Christina L. Cardenas
Communications and Marketing Specialist
Office of Academic Programs


For students graduating from the University Honors Program, the annual Senior Honors Projects Conference held at the end of each semester is a culmination of at least four years of pursuing their passion with dedication and hard work.

“The conference is such a valuable capstone for the Honors program,” said Dr. John Gleaves, acting director of the University Honors Program. “We emphasize the cross-disciplinary nature of the program, but it is really when you see the students presenting their research alongside their peers and faculty from across the university that you can appreciate how much the Honors program shapes the students.”

As the seniors put the final touches on their projects, which they had prepared to show peers, mentors, friends and family at the conference, COVID-19 hit and campus was closed. The conference, in its original format, was canceled.

Gleaves and Dr. Sandra Pérez, director of the University Honors Program who was on sabbatical, worked together to outline several different ways to ensure the graduating seniors still had the opportunity to present their projects.

In addition to creating a conference via Zoom, students had the opportunity to share their presentations online via YouTube or other creative formats.

However, Gleaves had some doubts about students wanting to participate in the new format. After all, they had so much on their plates: they had just transitioned to virtual instruction, and almost all of them had their projects interrupted. Many of them had to stop collecting data, were cut off from labs, or had their theater productions postponed.

To his surprise, however, students were enthusiastic to make it work.

“What blew me away was not one of them said their work couldn’t be done,” Gleaves said. “Even more, to see 10 students volunteer to complete the conference option was the whole reason it went forward. Without the students saying ‘yes,’ it would have never happened.”

One of the 10 students who participated was Cecilia “Cece” McWilliams. Her project, “Motherhood and Medicine: How Gender and Generational Differences Impact Views on Pregnancy and Childcare in the Medical Field,” won the Outstanding Senior Honors Project for Zoom Conference.

“Though the Senior Honors Project was initially something that scared me as an incoming freshman, the more I learned about it, the more excited I became.,” McWilliams said. “I was worried that after all my hard work, I wouldn’t be able to present the project that I was so passionate about and that my mentor and I had worked so hard on.”

The new format, however, ended up being a success that included an unexpected result: about 200 people joined the conference, including the students’ friends and family who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make it.

“Family members that either lived too far away or would have been too busy to come see me present were now able to see my project,” McWilliams said. “I actually got to have a lot more of my loved ones there than I likely would have if the presentation were done in its regular manner.”

In the end, the remote Senior Honor Project Conference kept the spirit of its intention: to serve as a welcoming glimpse into the University Honors Program and all that it entails, Gleaves said.

“I really see the conference as a front porch to the community,” Gleaves said. “Often in the Senior Honors Conference, you can see family members suddenly understand what all the student’s hard work has been developing. The students are suddenly the experts and the family and faculty are the ones asking questions.”


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