Undergraduate Academic Affairs

June 7, 2022

Honors Director Vicky Lawson prepares for next adventure

Interview by Danielle Marie Holland

After more than three decades of service to the University of Washington, Vicky Lawson will retire at the end of the academic year. Lawson, professor of geography and poverty researcher, has spent the past eight years directing the Honors Program, contributing to the deepening of its interdisciplinary focus and approach to intentional community building, innovative thinking and global citizenship.

Lawson is past president of the Association of American Geographers and former chair of the Department of Geography. Having worked across South and North America on informal economies, women’s work and poverty, her classes focus on the intersections of poverty, inequality and feminist care ethics. In addition to her leadership in the Honors Program, she is co-director of the Relational Poverty Network, a global research network that aims to expand thinking about the causes of poverty in both rich and poor countries. During her tenure at the UW, she has served as adjunct professor in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies and as a faculty affiliate of the West Coast Poverty Center.

Photo of Ed Taylor, Vicky Lawson and Tina Ragen.

Vicky Lawson, center, at her retirement party with Ed Taylor, left, and Tina Ragen, right.Photo by Shannon Sherman

As Lawson prepares to pass the role of Honors Program director to Stephanie Smallwood, she shares her thoughts on her accomplishments as director, the transformation of undergraduates through the interdisciplinary program, and the enduring impact of the Honors Program.

Honors broadened my view

How has the Honors Program most impacted and changed you?

With a 35-year career in the geography department and College of Arts and Sciences, coming over to Honors changed my perspective on undergraduate education and the University as a whole. Honors broadened my view of the University, in terms of who holds the University up and how, and in terms of the breadth of interests and capacities of students from all across the University. Honors spans the entire campus [and includes] students, instructors and classes from every college. It was a new vantage point for me of the brilliance of students regardless of what corner of campus or what background they come from.

I teach a class on houselessness and one particular student from aeronautics engineering made a profound contribution to an art exhibit my students installed with Real Change News through a comparative historical photography project of Seattle. It was a wakeup call for me to realize that it’s not just geographers who know how to read a city.

In addition to appreciating the breadth and curiosity of the students, coming over to UAA was coming into a space that is driven by professional staff. I came to appreciate just how staff hold up the University and how much they contribute. Getting to work closely with incredibly talented staff was a real gift because you see the commitment and the depth of the work they do. In Honors, all the staff are leaders. It’s a super creative space.

A deep commitment to inviting in the students

How has the Honors Program changed in the past eight years?

It was already an incredibly innovative, complex, interdisciplinary space when I got here. I don’t take a lot of credit for the brilliance of this program. I just came in and tried to amplify and support what the staff were already doing. These were things that were already happening, but we have been deeply introspective about difference and intersectional equity in our program. Honors has evolved tremendously over its 60-year history, especially over the past two decades. Juliana Villegas has been a leader on this work, but everybody’s been involved in understanding who our students are and where they come from. We have been committed to bringing in first-generation students and students of color and understanding how we’re doing compared to the University as a whole. We have a lot more work to do, but we do have a deep commitment to inviting in students who saw the label “Honors” and thought, “Well, that’s not a space for me.” Instead [we] invite them to know that, actually, participating in Honors is being part of an education that honors the University. Everybody’s backgrounds, experience and knowledge brings brilliance. It’s been a major part of what we’ve been doing. Juliana has led on it, and everybody has leaned in very seriously on that work.

Interdisciplinary education, experiential learning, and being in community

Photo of Global Challenges event with panelists Anna Lauren Hoffmann, Ece Kamar, Shankar Narayan and moderator Vicky Lawson

Global Challenges, 2019, with panelists (left to right) Anna Lauren Hoffmann, Ece Kamar, Shankar Narayan and moderator Vicky Lawson.

Another area that I’m particularly personally proud of in Honors is this incredibly creative space that has always rested on pillars of interdisciplinary education, experiential learning and being in community. I wanted to invite the whole campus into this space with our students, and one of the ways that we did that was through our Global Challenges series. We built an annual event that puts people from different walks of life in conversation with each other and asks them to talk about an issue that students themselves raised. We pull the freshmen in and say, “What do you care about? What is keeping you up at night?” We’ve done this now since 2015. Each year we’ve filled a ballroom with 500 people and we’ve hosted the event online with hundreds of people. By asking the students what they want us to talk about, we put the students in charge of their education the minute they walk through the door. Honors students learn that, at UW, we listen to them, that we build the program around their interests. At Global Challenges, they get to see what it’s like to have three people who are very accomplished in their fields, in a humble conversation about a really big topic for which there is no simple answer. That’s an example of showing the larger community what Honors is all about, what our students are all about, what our pedagogy is all about.

We are building that broader, richer sense of who we are and why we do what we do and inviting everybody. We are building something that’s for everyone.

What is the impact you’ve witnessed of interdisciplinary research?

Photo of Sarah Elwood and Vicky Lawson

Sarah Elwood, left, and Vicky.Photo by Shannon Sherman

One of the things that Honors did was create a space where I could literally teach my driving passion. In my research, I had a long-standing relationship with Real Change News along with Sarah Elwood, my collaborator. Each year in Honors I’ve taught a class on poverty and houselessness. A couple of years ago, we did a deep dive with Real Change News as collaborators to bring the portrait project to campus. I gave the students the responsibility to curate the exhibit to run for three weeks and build a launch event in the Allen Library. Twenty-five students collaborated together on every aspect of bringing that exhibit to campus, they collaborated with our Real Change News colleagues who were at the core of the project. Many of the students who were involved have come back to me to talk about where that experience took them.

Students will rise to any challenge

This morning, I sat with a student applying to medical school, who was in another iteration of that same class. She talked about how doing medicine was one thing, but thinking about it through the lens of social justice, access, historical racism and how that shapes who has access to care, was transformative for her. She understood that in a deep way because she’d been part of that class. I create a class space where the students teach each other and they pick up and carry that work and take it to places that are important to them.

This last quarter I had a group of students create a zine, called Hopeful Futures, in collaboration with homeless youth in the U District. It is full of incredible art, essays, cartoons and drawings. The students did the work of assembling this art aimed at elevating the voice of homeless youth, about their ideas of what the future could look like. This was a chance for our students to collaborate with the youth and to elevate their vision, their brilliance and their ideas. I’ve come to realize working with our students that, literally, they will rise to any challenge. They will mount an art exhibit, they’ll create a zine, they will do collaborations that are deep, they will face up to the impossibly difficult questions of climate change and poverty, and houselessness.

It’s been transformative for me working with these students.

How do you see the impact of the Honors Program on the students as they graduate?

What we’re trying to do and what we’ve really committed ourselves to with Honors, is to support the students to complicate their ideas and work, and to be brave about it. So if they think they’re going to do medicine, can we work with them to think about what it means to be a doctor? What does it mean to be a doctor that cares about social justice? How do we invite students into spaces in a way that is actually enabling? That’s what Honors classes do. And the students take the work places we never thought of. I have students that worked for the Pike Place senior center, a student who’s up in Skagit County as an organic farmer, students at Harvard, students in medical school, a student working on climate change activism. They learn that they can be brilliant in any number of different ways.

We have brought together a community

What’s something that comes to the forefront that you are very proud about?

I am proud of how we’ve connected to broader communities — and Carey Christie gets credit here. We have worked hand in glove to bring together a community of alumni. We’ve built an advisory board that leans in and shows up. We have built financial and moral support for this program at a level that did not exist when we came in. We have an endowed scholarship for equity. We built an endowed leadership fund that’s still growing. It’s about people believing in us and people in the community really reaching in and supporting what we do. And we’ve got an incredible group of volunteers now. We just had the most successful Husky Giving Day which is less about the money and more about the fact that over 70 people thought Honors was special enough to make a gift. I feel really proud of how we’ve expanded our community with people who deeply care and want to support our students because of how they think and what they mean to the future.

What are you most excited about with the next adventure?

Photo of Vicky Lawson riding a brown horse

Vicky, doing one of her favorite things.

I’m excited about not being busy! I’ve always been on a mission to be an academic and teach. I’m very curious what life has to offer if I’m not doing those things. I’m curious about what my next chapter is going to be and I don’t think I’m going to really truly know that until I stop. I am quite sure it’s going to continue to have to do with activism around impoverishment and houselessness. There are a lot of things I think about and wonder what my skills might do to make an impact. I do know that I’m going to grow a garden. I’m going to travel and I’m going to raise a horse and train it.

Any last thoughts?

Photo of a black pony with white lower legs and feet in a field.

Vicky Lawson’s first post-retirement project: Training Domino, a one-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter.

I came into Honors and I realized that this is where the work is. Undergraduate education, especially at a public university, is the place that I believe you can have the most impact. Undergraduate students have infinite paths open to them. Honors has redoubled my commitment to undergraduate education as a place of praxis and place of personal and professional transformation that’s really important. The staff in Honors are just quite remarkable and they taught me every day what is possible in undergraduate education for life.

Undergraduate education is the place I believe you can have the most impact.