Spotlight Series: PAC Honors Program

August 9, 2019

Palo Alto College

Our mission at Palo Alto College is to inspire, empower, and educate our community for leadership and success. This mission statement is manifested through a variety of programs and initiatives at the College, like the Honors Program, where courses challenge students to fully engage with the material, the College, their community, and more.

Since 2017, the Honors Program has grown with the intent to inspire our students and broaden their horizons, and behind every successful program lies the brain, or in this case brains, of the operation. Tori Beckman-Wilson, director of the Honors Program, and Thomas Murguía, assistant director of the program, are the workhorses involved with the honors courses at the College.

"The [honors] program helps students build confidence in their abilities," said Murguía. "[Beckman-Wilson] and I have been here since the beginning. It was a great opportunity to help build a program for our deserving students."

The program started fairly small with an English and history class, and now offers seven honors-level courses including general sciences, math, and speech.

Beckman-Wilson didn't hesitate to join the program when it started because of the involvement of Dr. Mary-Ellen Jacobs, retired dean of arts and sciences, and fine arts professor Dr. Alba De Leon, who helped build the program in the early phases.

"I would follow those two anywhere," said Beckman-Wilson. "I was inspired by them and wanted to do something new and exciting with our history program here."

Beckman-Wilson develops a new project and lesson plan for her honors history course every semester. Whether it be a focus on women's history, or immigration in the U.S., she always has something new for her students to keep the coursework fresh and engaging.

"It's not the same kind of history everyone remembers growing up with. These students want to be challenged," said Beckman-Wilson. "I don't want to teach the same old stuff they've been learning about throughout their educational careers."

Additionally, Beckman-Wilson and Murguía are constantly scouting opportunities for students and ways to expand the program. By reaching out to schools for transfer agreements, introducing new courses, and working on pathways that lead to other universities' honors programs, the duo are always building up the program and are extremely passionate in doing so.

"It's been challenging, but exciting," said Murguía. "It really invigorates and affirms you as an educator to see these students who are so talented, excited and driven. It's a two-way street, it helps us (too), not just the students."

There are also opportunities to travel to conferences around the country and study abroad. This summer, students from the Honors Program had the opportunity to travel to Ireland as part of two honors courses, environmental biology and English II. Students were able to learn about the literal history and natural beauty of the country.

But Beckman-Wilson and Murguía said they can't take all the credit. Esther Rendón, administrative services specialist for the program, and Maryjane Garza, a work study and honors student, have worked hard to help promote the program.

"This is a safe space for them," said Rendón. "Everybody that's in here is an honor student and I work to support them. It's more work, but the classes are small and the faculty are extremely dedicated. I've seen kids blossom here."

Taking honors courses, or even thinking of taking them, can be intimidating. But Beckman-Wilson said the intent isn't to make these courses harder for students per se, but to make them better.

"We want to dig in and expose them to more interesting pieces ... research practices that will make them a better student," said Beckman-Wilson.

"Our students are doing things they never dreamed possible. Most of them can't believe the work they accomplish and the types of research and projects they're part of. The biggest goal of our program is simple, 'Yes you can do this, you absolutely can'."

The program will hold an open house on Wednesday, Oct. 23 in "Honors HQ" — room 101 in Medina Hall. For more information on the program, visit