Cultivating Publicly Engaged Scholars: Rutgers University–Newark Is Revolutionalizing Honors and Leveraging Local Talent

In a recent piece on Association of American Colleges & Universities Liberal Education magazine, Deans Marta Esquilin and Timothy Eatman highlight the Honors Living-Learning Community:

Gabrielle Vera is a member of the 2017 Honors Living-Learning Cohort and will spend the fall term of her junior year in a study abroad program at Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom.

But a few years ago, Gabrielle would not have embraced the idea that she is a scholar. Feeling as if the system couldn’t address her learning needs, she dropped out of high school at age sixteen. But Gabrielle, a resilient fourth-generation Newarker, went on to earn her GED and complete other tests to receive college credits. In 2017, she was admitted to the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC) at Rutgers University–Newark. Now a junior who is even more in touch with her brilliance, Gabrielle has demonstrated consistent academic success, particularly in political science. In 2018, she received a coveted spot at the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars in Washington, DC, and interned with Kalik & Associates as a political consultant for members of Congress. Her intelligence, drive, and passion for social justice made her an ideal candidate for the HLLC; however, many of these qualities would not have been evident if the HLLC relied solely on traditional metrics for admission. Gabrielle’s story is representative of many of her fellow scholars who are part of the HLLC, an initiative that is expanding traditional notions of honors and transforming the Rutgers–Newark community.

A liberal education should prepare critically thinking, engaged citizens to participate actively in our democracy, and honors colleges are positioned to cultivate some of the most promising scholars and leaders. However, an unfortunate dearth of diversity exists within honors programs, which consistently have low enrollment among students of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.1

This reality raises larger structural and programmatic questions: Why do we continue to overlook brilliant young people from under-resourced communities? How do we identify the next generation of thought leaders? What skills will they need to effect social change? Will we miss them by primarily relying on standardized test scores to determine who gets a seat at the honors table?

“Revolutionizing Honors, Cultivating Talent, Engaging Communities” has become a mantra for our efforts to build the HLLC. Established under the leadership of Chancellor Nancy Cantor in 2015, the HLLC promotes academic excellence, community engagement, and social equity.
It seeks to eradicate structural barriers while critiquing deficit-based ideologies that fail to recognize the talent, academic potential, and intellectual abilities of scholars from under-resourced communities. Soon to be housed in a new, state-of-the-art academic and residential building, the HLLC is an expansion of Rutgers’ Honors Enterprise, which provides merit scholarships for room and board and challenges scholars with an eighteen-credit curriculum focused on social justice. It can also be understood as a place-based initiative within the city of Newark, New Jersey, and as a community partnership of shared resources and mutually beneficial work and scholarship focused on the public good. As Cantor has articulated, the university’s mission centers on not simply being in Newark but being of Newark.2

Cultivating community

As one of the oldest and largest industrial hubs in New Jersey, Newark welcomed many new residents during the Great Migration, including Gabrielle’s family, who came from Puerto Rico and Cuba via Miami, moving to Newark’s Central Ward in the early 1950s. Like countless other migrants, they left their homes after World War II in search of affordable housing and employment within Newark’s growing industries.3 Sixty years later, the city continues to be a destination for immigrants in search of opportunity. Newark’s current population is 50.1 percent black, 36.4 percent Hispanic, and 10.7 percent white, with 47.2 percent of the population speaking non-English languages—most commonly Spanish and certain Indo-European languages.4 Similar to other US urban centers, Newark has considerable educational and racial/ethnic inequities. In 2018, district-wide, 75.7 percent of Newark public high school students graduated, compared to 90.9 percent of students statewide.5 In 2017, 14 percent of Newark residents who were twenty-five years of age or older had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher; the statewide average was 38 percent.6

Rutgers–Newark has partnered with Mayor Ras Baraka and the City of Newark to expand college opportunities for academically promising Newark residents like Gabrielle. As a result, over the past five years, the university’s enrollment of Newark residents has increased by 80 percent. The HLLC expressly identifies local talent that has been overlooked for too long. One-third of HLLC scholars are transfer students from local community colleges, two-thirds are from Newark or Greater Newark, and—consistent with the city’s racial demographics—approximately 80 percent of HLLC scholars identify as black or Latinx. More than 65 percent of these scholars are eligible for Pell Grants, and almost 50 percent are first-generation college students.

In order to realize the HLLC’s larger goals—and to account for the challenges and opportunities our scholars experience, including institutional barriers that affect the retention of first-generation and underrepresented students—we have committed to advancing our community in nuanced, deliberate, and regionally specific ways. To this end, we’ve implemented a model for student success and community engagement that has several implications for practice—including holistic admissions, inclusive and community-engagement classrooms, and comprehensive infrastructures for mentoring and support. We seek to create an environment in which

  •  we recognize the distinct assets, knowledge, and abilities that HLLC scholars bring to Rutgers–Newark;
  •  HLLC faculty and administrators make scholars’ experiences central to the curriculum, which we see as critical for their academic success;
  •  we develop infrastructures (mentoring, advisement, leadership opportunities) that help us identify and cultivate scholars’ unique strengths, talents, and skill sets; and
  •  we create concepts of community both within and outside the university that contribute to our broader vision of graduating innovative change makers to help solve local and global issues.

Holistic admissions

The first implication for practice relates to developing a more holistic admissions process to assess HLLC candidates’ academic potential, abilities, and intellect. We designed a rubric that evaluates applicants along a range of spectra: critical-thinking abilities, social and emotional intelligence, leadership skills, academic skills, artistic and intellectual abilities, resiliency, passion for social change, and the ability to engage in challenging dialogue across difference.

We also host a series of individual and large-group interviews of up to two hundred prospective scholars. The individual interviews allow evaluators to take a deep dive into an applicant’s academic transcript and personal story. During the group interviews, applicants participate in activities aimed at assessing their interaction in communities, their critical-thinking abilities, and their orientation toward social justice. These activities connect applicants and help us gauge their collaborative effort. To further underscore the importance of community partnership, a diverse cross section of faculty, staff, and community educators help evaluate candidates and foster a deep investment in our scholars.

When Ryan Smith, now an HLLC junior, applied to the program, he was excited to participate in community-building activities with other candidates from a diverse array of backgrounds—a change from the segregated school system he was used to attending. The large-group interview made him realize that an HLLC education would involve more than studying from books—it would also entail meeting people, listening to different points of view, and learning through dialogue. He came out of the admissions process with the view that the HLLC would help him build a purposeful life. “It really hit home that this was the place I wanted to be,” he says. “We all had different philosophies, but they were equitably shared, and everyone’s voice was heard. It was the first time I realized that change would take more than just intellect but that I could learn the actual steps needed to make change.”

Cultural histories

The second implication for practice—and perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the HLLC’s work—focuses on implementing community-resource models to cultivate the talent of scholars from groups that have been historically disenfranchised. More specifically, we assess ways in which we might leverage the strengths and resources that our scholars already possess to further thought leadership skills. This is particularly important for students who have internalized the negative belief that they are not as intelligent or academically capable as students from more privileged backgrounds, also known as “impostor syndrome.”7 Strengths-based perspectives assume that every individual possesses resources that can be mobilized toward success in many areas of life,8 an approach characterized by “efforts to label what is right” within people and organizations.9

Since many HLLC scholars have never been taught about their own cultural histories or their community’s contributions to our society, the HLLC initially focuses on communities of origin to ignite and then expand scholars’ academic interests. All of our courses involve engagement with Newark-based organizations and institutions, and scholars learn about their community’s rich history and develop pride for their hometown. This past semester, scholars studied environmental justice issues through a partnership between Rutgers–Newark’s Arts, Culture, and Media Department and the Ironbound Community Corporation, located in Newark’s Ironbound District. The course explored how toxic waste has affected the neighborhood and how residents have mobilized around the issue.

For another course, “Local Citizenship in a Global World,” scholars learned about Newark’s history. One student, a first-year scholar at the time, described her astonishment at realizing how little she knew of the city’s history even though she’d lived there her entire life. Understanding the area’s past helped her transform feelings of shame about her community into feelings of respect. She had internalized the negative labels associated with the city, defined by crime and poverty. Her new-found pride resonated throughout her experience with the HLLC and allowed her to view herself as an agent of change committed to Newark’s promise. A marketing major, she has since used her passion for increasing visibility of the arts in Newark to help launch innovative arts and music outlets that celebrate local talent.

Our work also confronts the deficit-based ideology that students from under-resourced communities lack the intellectual abilities or skills to be successful in college. Too often, students who benefited from programs aimed at increasing access to higher education for those from historically underrepresented communities have had to navigate challenging campus dynamics. Such students are labeled as low-income, minority, or nontraditional, and because of their successes are viewed as exceptional. This exceptionalism fails to consider that entire cities are full of individuals with the same potential.

Describing the effect of comments that relegate him to being “nontraditional” and a “poor minority,” Ryan says, “I am constantly being told how special, even lucky, I am that I was the ‘one’ who somehow escaped the horror of my community to become ‘somebody’—that I’ve made it despite my upbringing, not because of it.”

What do phrases such as at-risk, defying the odds, and poor minority say about scholars like Ryan and imply about their potential? How do these scholars assert their own narratives, have pride in where they come from, succeed in the university environment, and leverage their experiences to optimally impact social change? At the HLLC, we challenge the notion that our scholars are the exceptions or distinct from others in their home community. We believe that our scholars possess unique knowledge and skill sets rooted in their backgrounds and that centering their identities and communities within our curriculum is crucial to our mission.

Core values

The third implication for practice is the importance of intergenerational learning communities and mentoring in supporting student success. Our scholars range in age from eighteen to sixty-five. They may have just finished high school or community college, or they may have spent years out of school. All scholars live in shared residential suites and work with mentors—more senior HLLC scholars and faculty who advise cohorts of ten to fifteen students. Cohorts meet twice a month during scholars’ first year and discuss topics—such as navigating personal family dynamics and time management—aimed at helping them succeed in the college environment.

The HLLC has a family mind-set, Ryan explains. “We call each other brother and sister, and this has meaning that we take very seriously,” he says. “Everything we can do to help each other, whether other students need help studying or food from the food pantry on campus, we are going to do what is necessary to support each other’s success. I’ve never been part of anything else like this.”

HLLC faculty and staff meet regularly to address pedagogical questions and strategies for assisting scholars. These strategies include engaging in critical discourse, supporting individuals at different skill levels in the same class, incorporating technology in teaching, and sharing best practices for educating in diverse settings. Additionally, first-year HLLC scholars take three core courses together in smaller sections of twenty students. These courses focus on intensive writing, local histories, social justice frameworks, and cultural competence, as well as dialogue and advocacy skills. Scholars in the HLLC also connect through academic communities, identity-based discussions, career development communities, arts spaces, community events, and monthly meetings. The HLLC Student Council, for instance, was started in order to support leadership development, while the men’s, women’s, and LGBTQ+ groups support identity development. Scholars have also created premedical and STEM study groups, as well as the Healing Sounds of Newark—a community performing arts space hosted by HLLC scholars at our campus jazz club, which was named after the late Newark historian and beloved community member Clement Price.

Purpose and confidence

For scholars like Gabrielle and Ryan, being a part of the HLLC has been transformative. Ryan has served as a teaching assistant for the HLLC’s first-year courses, coteaching the same curriculum from which he learned so much during his first semester. He now aims to pursue a career in the academy. “I plan to be an academic,” he says. “Being in front of the classroom is what I want to do with my life.”

The accessibility and support of HLLC deans have been crucial to Gabrielle’s achievements and ability to navigate the university, particularly since she is a first-generation college student. Taking classes as well as living in the same building as other HLLC scholars has also enhanced her learning process, because, she says, “Our conversations always bleed out of the classrooms and into our residential spaces.” One of Gabrielle’s favorite HLLC courses has been “Representing Cuba,” which she says challenged her to “step back from my personal bias and narrative and learn about my history through a different lens.”

When Gabrielle interned in DC, she felt prepared to handle the challenges of working at a political consulting firm in an environment lacking diversity. The HLLC, she says, “equipped me with the skills to navigate really challenging conversations in DC about politics and identity when I was one of the only students of color there.”

The HLLC has become a hub for academic and civic innovation, helping reframe honors programs as inclusive models for equity and student success. Through this program, Rutgers–Newark has fulfilled its mission as an anchor institution by giving us all, students and faculty alike, the extraordinary opportunity to explore what it means to be citizen scholars and leaders, on and off campus.


1. See Robert Glover and Katherine O’Flaherty, Present Successes and Future Challenges in Honors Education (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016); Graeme Harper, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Honors Education (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018); Angela D. Mead, “Socioeconomic Equity in Honors Education: Increasing Numbers of First-Generation and Low-Income Students,” Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 19, no. 1 (2018): 25–31.

2. Nancy Cantor, “Anchor Institution–Community Engagement in Newark: Striving Together” Speech (Newark, NJ, 2017).

3. See “Puerto Ricans,” RiseUp North–Newark, accessed April 28, 2019,

4. “US Census Bureau QuickFacts: Newark City,
New Jersey,” Census Bureau QuickFacts, accessed May 10, 2019,

5. “2017–18 District Performance Reports,” New Jersey Department of Education, March 2017,

6. “American Community Survey Five-Year Estimates (2013–2017),” Table S1501, US Census Bureau,

7. See Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes, “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15, no. 3 (1978): 241–47.

8. See Dennis Saleebey, “The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice: Extensions and Cautions,” Social Work 41, no. 3 (1996): 296–305.

9. David Buckingham, Beyond Technology: Children’s Learning in the Age of Digital Culture (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2007).

Marta Elena Esquilin is associate dean of the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC) and professor of professional practice in American studies at Rutgers University–Newark. Timothy K. Eatman is inaugural dean of the Honors Living-Learning Community and professor of urban education at Rutgers University–Newark.

This article appeared in the AAC&U Liberal Education magazine, Winter 2019, Vol. 105, No. 1 issue.