The honors program at Penn State Wilkes‑Barre provided an additional level of challenge sought by three students who are transitioning to University Park for their third year of college. All three students have been accepted to Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College, consistently recognized as one of the top undergraduate programs in the United States.
The campus honors program is overseen by Ann Brennan, assistant to the chief academic officer and associate teaching professor of English, and Erin Brennan, assistant teaching professor of business, who are the co-coordinators of the program.
“The honors program allows our students to further develop their critical thinking skills and research methods as they gain a more in-depth knowledge of their field and outside their field,” Ann Brennan said. “It gives them the ability to engage with a vibrant academic community and connect with faculty in meaningful ways.”
Erin Brennan said, “The program affords students a really good opportunity to learn about themselves and just how much potential they have. It teaches them how important it is to become an independent worker and that there are no limits if you put your effort forth.”
For Josh Christ, majoring in electrical engineering; Evan Elko, studying biomedical engineering; and Edward Galonis, majoring in civil engineering, the campus honors program was a way to stand out and distinguish themselves. The three students, graduates of Pittston Area High School, have all been accepted to Schreyer Honors College at University Park. Schreyer is highly selective and students must meet several eligibility requirements, including maintaining a cumulative GPA of 3.40 or higher. Acceptances are determined after a thorough examination of academic achievement, desire, ability and motivation to conduct research, leading to the completion of an undergraduate honors thesis. Students are also selected based on their interest in and aptitude for leadership and civic engagement.
Christ, Elko and Galonis have known each other for years and spent even more time together through the honors program at Penn State Wilkes-Barre. They chose to attend the local campus to stay close to home, save money and have a more close-knit start for their college experience.
“I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of major I wanted, but I wanted to go to Penn State because there is such a wide variety of majors to choose from and Penn State is very well known across the board,” Christ said. “I liked the smaller campus at Penn State Wilkes-Barre and it was a nice transition from high school to college. Being able to commute saved a lot of money and was definitely a smart decision for me.”
Galonis added, “I thought going with the 2+2 program was a good way to start college and stay close to home. It was great to save money and get introduced to school at a smaller campus.”
Elko’s brother, Michael, and two cousins also attended Penn State Wilkes-Barre, so “it was a legacy thing” for him. Michael Elko also participated in the campus honors program and was selected to attend Schreyer Honors College. Knowing his brother’s experience with the honors program at both campuses, Evan Elko wanted to participate and encouraged his friends to join as well.
“In high school I held myself to higher standards, and I knew joining the honors program at Penn State Wilkes-Barre was a good way to keep holding myself to that standard,” said Evan Elko, who graduated high school as valedictorian.
About 25 students participate in the campus honors program each year, taking honors courses or joining meetings. The program also functions with a club aspect for students to gather and have meetings.
“A key point in the past has been a spring break trip, but due to COVID-19, that hasn’t happened since the trip to London in spring 2019. We are hopeful in future years we can get back to that and shape the honors program around the trip,” Ann Brennan said.
For students to join the program at the campus, they need to meet an SAT requirement or have achieved a high school GPA of at least 3.50. At Penn State Wilkes-Barre, they need to maintain a GPA of 3.50 and be active in the program by taking honors enrichment classes and attending honors meetings.
Students work with faculty members to design courses that are challenging and feature more in-depth research and analysis. Their work is often presented at the campus’ Celebration of Scholarship, a research fair held each spring. Christ, Elko and Galonis worked together one year on a project on a Gaussian cannon as part of their physics class.
“These aren’t separate sections of courses. Students work with instructors to create an individualized plan to make it an honors course,” Erin Brennan explained. “We have so many faculty members willing to offer honors options in their classes, and that helps us build a more robust program. We are fortunate to have faculty members willing to take on that extra step.”
Elko said, “We meet with our honors instructors outside of class to do extra work. That interaction with them outside of class makes those classes more enjoyable since we get to know them on a more personal level.”
The students spoke highly of all the campus personnel they have worked with as part of the honors program.
“I can’t say enough about how Ann Brennan has helped us along the way,” Christ said. “Both Ann and Erin Brennan were very warm and welcoming and helped push us along. They talked to us a lot about things to consider doing after college.”
Galonis said, “Ann Brennan and Erin Brennan were really good with helping us know what we had to do to try to get to that next level of Schreyer Honors College. Any question we needed help with, they would find out the answer.”
Christ said, “I was able to sit down with my professors and talk one on one about things like math theorems. It helped me to be able to learn more and also focus on the aspect of asking more in-depth questions.”
Not all students who participate in the campus honors program decide to apply for admission to Schreyer Honors College.
“That’s a benefit of having the program at our campus: Students can have that honors program experience their first two years, even without attending Schreyer,” Erin Brennan explained.
For Christ, Galonis and Elko, though, Schreyer was a longtime goal.
“I knew Schreyer is a very well-known college honors program, and I’m the kind of person who likes to try things and strive to do the best I can. I always try my absolute hardest and go for gold. Even if you try to do your best and fail, it’s all part of the experience,” Christ said.
“Schreyer is obviously going to be difficult, but it’s something I’m looking forward to doing. The alumni base associated with Schreyer is well renowned. Being able to have that group of people help me as I start my career is an amazing thing.”
Elko is excited about conducting research as part of his college and career goals and was inspired by his brother’s experience at Schreyer. Michael Elko is a 2021 electrical engineering graduate of Schreyer Honors College who completed his first two years at Penn State Wilkes-Barre. He is beginning doctoral work in engineering science and mechanics this semester and will serve as a graduate teaching assistant.
“My brother always paved the road for me and did a lot of research working toward his degree,” Evan Elko said. “Research is a big part of what I want to do and it will be amazing to have that opportunity through Schreyer.”
The students all said they feel better prepared for Schreyer after having participated in the Penn State Wilkes-Barre honors program.
“It gives you a good introduction of what Schreyer could be,” Galonis said. “Starting out in honors courses there gives you a good starting point of what you might see for the next two years.”
Elko said, “My end goal was to get to Schreyer. Learning how an honors program works was a great step in that direction. Taking honors classes for my major was really able to help me a lot.”
“This is a wonderful achievement for Josh, Edward and Evan,” Ann Brennan said. “They have excelled academically, involved themselves in campus organizations and balanced work, school, community service and internships. We look forward to them returning and sharing their experiences with future Penn State Wilkes-Barre honors students, and we can’t wait to celebrate all they accomplish at Schreyer Honors College and beyond.”
Christ would like to secure a job working in American infrastructure, specifically with power grids and power plants.
“I feel like that avenue alone has such career potential and possibilities,” he said. “I believe the infrastructure should be updated to new standards so we don’t have a new crisis like what happened in Texas this past winter. The movement to renewable energy is something that fascinates me and I would really love to work in that field.”
Galonis, who is completing a job shadowing internship at the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station, hopes to intern there again next summer and be offered a job at the plant upon graduation.
Elko wants to work on engineering medical equipment, particularly prosthetics.
“I always knew I wanted to be an engineer, but wasn’t sure what type,” he said. “My first weekend of college, I went to an event at a camp for children who have suffered from limb loss or need medical devices to help them. Learning more about the children and getting to know them made me want to work with prosthetics as my main goal.”
Ann Brennan said, “It is really important to all of us at Penn State Wilkes-Barre to celebrate our students’ accomplishments and their willingness to create these options, take initiative and answer difficult questions.”