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Voices of ACES Blog

ACES student takes advantage of opportunities in honors program

Young woman with long brown hair smiling at the camera
Kelly Lanham

When she arrived at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, Kelly Lanham was unfamiliar with the James Scholar Program. After she transferred from the Division of General Studies to the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES), she discovered the program, and it piqued her interest.

A senior in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE), Kelly was drawn to the program initially for its early registration benefit and the opportunity to be in a cohort with other high-achieving students. The additional opportunities and distinction uniquely offered to James Scholar students led her to accept the invitation to participate.   

Established over 60 years ago, the purpose of the program, according to Rob Chappel, assistant to the dean of the ACES James Scholar Honors Program, is to “provide enhanced experiences to exceptional undergraduate students in order to prepare them for their future careers and help them to make a positive impact on our world through the agricultural, consumer, and environmental sciences.”

Incoming students at the top of their class are invited to be in the program when they apply. Students transferring into or already in ACES can also apply to be admitted into the program up until the sixth week of their junior year.

Once in the program, a student must maintain a 3.40 grade-point average and complete various requirements throughout their time as a James Scholar. James Scholars take at least four 400-level courses and one 500-level or designated graduate level course. They arrange an extra honors project with instructors in four different courses. They also complete and present a capstone research project.

For Kelly, who had no experience or particular interest in research coming into the program, the capstone research project was a bit intimidating.

“I spoke with Professor Lisa Gunderson, who is the head of the James Scholar Honor Program in ACE, and I learned it’s really up to me,” said Kelly. “I’ve enjoyed it because I’ve had the freedom to research what I am interested in.”

Kelly used the opportunity to lean into her interest in financial literacy that she discovered in ACE 240: Personal Finance, which she took with ACE instructor Paul Stoddard her sophomore year.

“I was really interested in other college students’ knowledge of finance topics like credit, student loan debt, and investing,” Kelly said. “I wanted to understand how financially literate they were.”

With the freedom to shape her capstone research, Kelly connected with Stoddard and fellow ACE instructor Ailie Elmore. Together, they helped her create a topic and develop an approach. From there, Kelly dove into the research process — from survey design to approvals from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), to collecting and analyzing responses.

While the process itself has been educational for Kelly, it is gaining a new understanding about the importance of financial literacy, a topic she is passionate about, that she has really enjoyed.

“I think that’s what’s really interesting about doing research — you get to learn in a more hands-on way about what you’re studying in the classroom,” Kelly explains.

Being a James Scholar has enhanced Kelly’s experience in ACES in other ways as well. Kelly highlights the opportunities to engage more closely with faculty and gain a unique insight into the college.

“I’ve been able to build connections with faculty who have helped me through the process, and I’ve been able to learn more about ACES as a whole and the resources available to students,” Kelly said.

After graduating with James Scholar Distinction from the College of ACES in May, Kelly’s path will take her to an accounting firm in Chicago. She can already see how the lessons she has learned in the James Scholar Honors Program will benefit her in this next step. 

“One of the main things I’ve learned is being proactive and taking initiative. Moving forward, I think I’ll be less afraid to dive into new or uncomfortable things, and I’ll be more ready to put myself out there and take risks.”

f you are a current freshman, sophomore, or first-semester junior in ACES, with an overall GPA of 3.50 or above, you can apply to be an ACES James Scholar through our web portal by filling out the application form. Applications will be accepted through February 23, 2024.