English professor Maryemma Graham first became involved with the University Honors Program as a "talent scout" of sorts, identifying students who might benefit from the program's services.
"Inevitably, when I would encourage students to try the Honors Program, they would say, 'This is what I needed,'" says the newly minted University Distinguished Professor.
The Honors Program may very well have been what Professor Graham needed, as well. As a scholar of biographies, the Honors Program not only was a natural way for her to learn students' stories, but also to help students change and infuse their own life stories. She has seen students emerge as leaders in key roles on campus – and take charge of their academic destiny.
"My Honors class is at 7:30 in the morning, so I am often the very first person that college freshmen see. That experience has always been very gratifying," Prof. Graham says.
Prof. Graham's Honors courses involve reading books written from the perspective of young people around college age, between 18-24, and their life experiences. Students must also write about their own lives. Prof. Graham, who comes from a long line of teachers in her family, requires students to attend activities and events at KU, and she encourages them to learn outside of class as well.
"Many students will find KU overwhelming because it's so big," she says. "There is a culture shock that makes them ask, 'How do I find my niche?'"
Prof. Graham created her own niche early on in her academic career at the University of Mississippi, when she founded the Project on the History of Black Writing, for which Graham calls herself a "literary detective," searching out works that have been overlooked or that people may not know about. It is the only archive of its kind, dedicated to literary recovery, academic and professional training, public outreach and digital access.
She oversees a laboratory for the project at KU, which receives funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is in the planning stages of a summer institute for college teachers, called "Don't Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African-American Poetry," scheduled for July 14-August 3, 2013.
Graham has spent her life pushing her own envelope, continuously traveling to new places and reading new books. In 2011, she took students to Haiti, hoping to re-establish lines of communication between KU and the country, after its devastating earthquake.
"I tell my students, 'Do not go home this summer; go someplace else and see another part of the world,'" she says. "What's different is unsettling, and how do you judge that experience? We need to get beyond our world and learn who we can be."
And, of course, they should write about it.