The Future is Now

USC College’s Resident Honors Program offers exceptional students a jump start on their college education.
ByRebecca Dorman ’10

When Alexa Sieracki received a letter from the USC College Resident Honors Program inviting her to apply to college one year early, she wasn’t sure what to think. “At first I didn’t know skipping my senior year of high school was even possible,” she said.

“I had to consider what classes I would miss by skipping my senior year, how I would handle moving across the country and leaving my friends and family, and how it would impact me and my family financially.”

It took two or three interest letters from the program before she decided to apply, but she’s glad she did.

Sieracki, a native of Elkhart, Ind., is one of 33 incoming freshmen in the Resident Honors Program (RHP). Each year, the program offers approximately 30 students the opportunity to enter USC College after their junior year of high school. One of only a handful of early entrance programs in the country, RHP is also among the few that do not require students to obtain a high school diploma.

“My friends were pretty shocked,” said Clinton VanSciver, another incoming RHP freshman, who hails from a rural community in eastern Maryland.

“They were happy for me, but, naturally, didn’t understand at first. I had to explain the program to them; no one from around here does anything like this.”

Even within USC, some students have no idea that the program exists. According to RHP students, the most frequent question their new college friends ask about the program is, “wait, you can do that?”

Program Director Penny Von Helmolt notes this relatively low profile is intentional to help RHP students blend seamlessly with the rest of the freshman class. “We don’t want them to feel that they’re lesser freshmen — they’re real freshmen,” she said.

All RHP students participate in the College’s Thematic Option Honors Program. They demonstrated impressive academic performances in high school, and many have been National Merit Scholars.

“RHP is contributing to the overall growing profile of strong academics at USC,” Von Helmolt said.

Achieving the scores required for admission to the program is no easy feat — next year’s class has a mean SAT score of 2170 and GPA of 4.1 — but academic achievement alone does not tell the whole story.

The program seeks well-rounded, dynamic individuals with unique talents and interests. The incoming class for 2009-10 is made up of 33 students from 16 states with 17 diverse fields of study, from philosophy to astronautical engineering. Sieracki will be studying geology and chemistry and hopes to pursue a career in volcanology, while VanSciver plans to study film production.

Von Helmolt takes great pride in her RHP students, and keeps in touch with many of the program’s alumni. Former students have gone on to a wide range of studies and careers, from astrophysics studies at Harvard to classical violin performance to Teach for America.

The ideal RHP students possess that rare blend of academic and extracurricular excellence, the maturity to dive headfirst into college life, and a certain je ne sais quoi that sets them apart. Von Helmolt describes this last quality as a spark — a “spirit of adventure” both in their studies and other areas of life.

“It’s about finding students who are ready to move on now, ready to get ahead,” Von Helmolt said.

For VanSciver, the decision to attend was an easy one. “I got that debate out of the way before I even got the letter; if I got in, I was going,” he said.

He considered both the rigorous academics and the challenge that going cross-country to college a year early would pose, but readiness for college far outweighed any trepidation he initially felt.

This confidence, Von Helmolt said, is what RHP students need. “They are not going to be afraid. They’re ready for university education.”

Once she received the financial aid package she needed to make her enrollment in the program possible, Sieracki, too, had no doubts about entering college early.

“My mom and I jumped around the living room in excitement,” she said. “I truly feel like I have completed my high school stage and am ready for college.”

RHP students come from different states, backgrounds and interests but they still share an important link: their intellectual curiosity and desire to get a head start on university life.

Von Helmolt has high hopes for these young College students, and total confidence in their readiness for university life. “They’re doing all kinds of amazing things. They’re really exceptional.”

For more information about the USC College’s Resident Honors Program, visit