After 60 years as part of the University of Nevada, Reno, the Honors Program became the Honors College as of July 1, as the Board of Regents supported the University's proposal to elevate the program. Matt Means, who has directed the Honors Program since 2019, became the dean of the Honors College at that time.
Means is the guest of the latest episode of Nevada Today’s new podcast, UNPACKED: Backstories from the University of Nevada, Reno, hosted by Marketing Communication’s David Stipech. The podcast shares the journey, the passions and the impacts of people from throughout the University community. Means’s passions for his students reveal the heart and soul of the college and his love for the students.
“The students in our program are so remarkable and so inspirational to me and come to our community with such wonderful, beautiful spirits and such incredible potential,“ Means said, “they are easy causes to advocate for and they give every day countless reasons why you should be spending all of your waking hours doing everything you can for them. And there is a reward that is incredible.”
Matt Means: From young violinist to Honors College dean
Few professional musicians occupy roles as college administrators. Recently the University of Nevada, Reno's Honors Program was elevated into a full Honors College. The Dean of the new college is Matt Means, a veteran administrator who, as a violinist, has performed around the world and taught music at the college level. This inspiring episode shares Matt Means' truly humble beginnings, his love for the violin since childhood and the journey that brought him to the University of Nevada, Reno in 2019. It highlights the role of the Honors College in helping students aspire to achieve their full potential and discover their own path.
Means has risen from humble beginnings, and with the help of his childhood love of the violin, has overcome multiple disadvantages to become a performing violinist and innovative academic administrator. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Northern Colorado and two advanced degrees from the prestigious Cleveland Clinic of Music / Case Western Reserve University. He has a passion for students and for people, and a grand vision for the new Honors College.
“All of the changes that we’re implementing in the next five years represent the progressive edge of what honors colleges are doing nationally in this country," Means said. "So I’m very excited about the innovation element to our strategic plan that we’re launching here this fall, that I think will help set us apart from our peers in remarkable ways.”
His story is as engaging as it is inspiring. The episode is now available for listening on this page, and can be downloaded to your mobile device as well from on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and other common podcast sources.
Transcript: UNPACKED PODCAST hosted by David Stipech
Guest: Matt Means, Honors College dean, University of Nevada, Reno
Season 1, Episode 2 | August 11, 2020
MATT MEANS: The students in our program are so remarkable and so inspirational to me and come to our community with such wonderful, beautiful spirits and such incredible potential, they are easy causes to advocate for and they give every day countless reasons why you should be spending all of your waking hours doing everything you can for them
DAVID STIPECH: From Nevada Today, this is UNPACKED … backstories of people from the
University of Nevada, Reno community – their journey, their passions and their impacts. I’m David Stipech with Marketing Communications and on today’s show, how is it that a young boy growing up in Colorado follows his calling to play the violin … to eventually become the dean of the University’s new Honors College. Today, a visit with Matt Means …
STIPECH: If you look at universities all across the nation, you’ll likely find few professional musicians occupying roles of college administrators. The Honors program has been part of the University of Nevada, Reno for 60 years, and recently the Board of Regents approved the University’s proposal to make it a full Honors College. The Dean is Matt Means, a violinist who has performed around the world and taught music at the college level. The term humble beginnings gets used a lot, but this is a story of truly humble beginnings and the journey that brought Matt to Reno in 2019. So just what is an honors college?
MEANS: To me it is one word, opportunity. An opportunity for growth. It represents creating a structure a program a set of experiences a way for people to communicate that allows people students in this case, who are in a crucially developmental part of their lives to be given access to opportunities that cause them to realize their growth potential in a new way, a new and profound way. Honors colleges and honors programs have as a responsibility putting students together with experiences, whether those are curricular experiences, honors coursework, or co-curricular experiences, outside the classroom, that challenge and transform their worldview. That allow our students to see beyond what they think is capability for themselves. That allow them to understand linkages and relationships between disciplines, people and the world in new and profound ways. And that ultimately give them a greater appreciation for all kinds of backgrounds, perspectives, viewpoints and hopes dreams and passions. That’s in a nutshell what honors programs and colleges are about. But if I were to give a piece of advice to someone who is just starting out in this field, I would say, “Don’t forget the forgotten.” It is so easy for honors programs and honors colleges to just recognize traditional forms of accomplishment and trust me I have absolutely the highest regard for students who have 36 ACT scores, and are four-sport varsity athletes and who come to a college with 70 college credit hours accumulated. That’s remarkable. That’s fantastic. That’s wonderful. But there are a lot of students out there and a lot of people out there who have an innate brilliance, and innate capabilities that they don’t even realize that they have or don’t think that they have. They were just never given an opportunity. Or they were never provided with a format to have a discussion about the possibility. That is what honors colleges and honors programs are about. And that is what we are trying to do hear in ours.
STIPECH: Matt, I didn’t really know much about an honors program and now it’s an honors college. What’s the difference, why was that an important change to make and for those of us who aren’t that familiar with the concept, talk a little bit about how it all works.
MEANS: So now as an honors college we can offer students multiple pathways through the program. There are a number of improvements and a number of changes that we are seeking to implement here in the next five years. You as a student in our program gets to choose one of three pathways, each of which has different requirements, different co-curricular and different curricular requirements that allow you to tailor what you do while in you’re in the Honors College to your interests, passions, talents desires and some of those things may be related to their major, but they could be extracurricular. But the idea behind all of these is that they are very relevant to each individual student, they are supervised by a robust mentorship and coaching piece and they are being explored within a community of students, faculty and staff that are interested in them reaching full self-actualization. So, you know, the support. I like to use the term high tech, high touch. They have access to the very best faculty members, facilities, and equipment, but yet they are also pursuing these things surrounded by people who will inspire them, motivate them, support them and encourage them at a level that they’ve never encountered before.
STIPECH: So, do you have an honor major or do you keep your major? Are there specific majors that fit in with the honors college?
MEANS: Yeah, we can accommodate any major and the greater the diversity of majors, frankly, the better. You will work with our mentor and coaching component to identify a series of honors experiences, courses or co-curricular activities that align with your interests and your callings and you will basically via the Honor College’s structure, do a deep dive into those things. But that choice of what you do deep dives into will be yours. So, any major, any previously attained level of college credit can be accommodated and every journey is unique to each individual person.
STIPECH: So how does this fit into the bigger picture nationally and here at this University with the work that you’re doing? What kind of student is attracted to an honors college?
MEANS: Generally, nationally, honors programs and colleges tend to be STEM-heavy in terms of majors. I think that’s a great thing. It’s a wonderful thing. The value and contributions that our STEM students offer is really incalculable not only to the program but what they’ll offer to society once they leave our doors. But we have to as honors colleges and programs also provide a structure that allows for new things to be created. So, for example, one of the things that we’re launching here is a new tracks-based option for Honors courses. So in future years we’ll be working with departments to identify at their level of interest, sets of honors courses tied around a theme, or a discipline. That’s something that’s very exciting that’s on the horizon for us in the future. And one thing, of course, that Honors Colleges can do over Honors programs is that they can have their own set of faculty. And I see that as we continue to grow and build that we’ll have a demand and a need and a rise for our own faculty members as well.
STIPECH: Matt as we look at your backstory, you had an interesting start to life right out of the gate, so talk a little bit about that.
MEANS: Well I grew up mainly in Colorado. I was born in Seoul, South Korea. I’m adopted. I am one-half of a set of identical twin brothers. My identical twin brother was also adopted by my parents but didn’t make it. He died the week before we came over from Korea. But I basically spent my whole formative years in a Greel,y Colorado. I was only three months old, so an infant, so I really don’t really remember anything about that obviously, but it was a wonderful place to grow up. Of course, I didn’t really appreciate Colorado until I moved away from it. I think, you know, perspective and distance always gives somebody a little bit of a greater sense of objectivity but I look back with fondness of my experience in Colorado; all my experiences in Colorado. And, frankly, that was one of the attractants about the job here in Reno, is that it was a chance to get back to the West again. I have an affinity for the West, everything from the climate to the spirit of the people to the geography to the ties to nature that has always been a part of me since childhood.
STIPECH: So, you grew up in the Greeley, Colorado area, and I assume that’s just because that’s where your adoptive parents are from?
MEANS: Well, my parents are multigenerational native Coloradans, so they are dyed-in-the-wool Westerners and I grew up as an only child. An experience which other only children no doubt understand that is something that is fraught with advantages and perils. But my parents are wonderful people. I didn’t appreciate them as much when I was living with them, of course, as I do now. I not for a minute would ever have wanted to have been the parents that raise me when I was a teenager. But they were very patient with me. But they’re also very different from me. That was one of the things that was unique growing up in a household being from a different culture as well as being biologically not from them. And they may have provided some of the perspective for why I was such a rotten teenager. Is because you grow up and you start over time realizing what parts of you are nature and what parts or nurture. And there are parts of my personality that I realized as I grew up didn’t come from my parents, my adoptive parents. So that understandably creates a little bit of cognitive dissonance and so there were some issues that I had to wrestle with as a kid growing up, but on the whole, I am very, very fortunate that I got the parents that I did and they are, I can’t thank them enough, so.
STIPECH: It’s interesting how much more we appreciate our parents as we get a little older and have some experiences and recognize that that wasn’t so easy raising us necessarily, even if we were good kids or whatever. Still, there’s a lot to appreciate there.
MEANS: Yeah, everybody usually has a situation which they feel that one parent is more lenient than the other and my mother was always the one that was more interested in knowing where I was going or what I was doing than my dad. And she would say to me when I was a teenager, “Matt, just leave a note and tell us where you’re going.” And me, being the musician, I’d write music notes and put them on a piece of paper and that was my note. I didn’t want her to know where I was going or what I was doing or for how long or who-with. So yeah, I’m sure that frustrated her to no end.
STIPECH: Matt, somewhere in your childhood at an early age, you start to develop a musical interest that stays with you the rest of your life. Is that something your parents introduced you to or how did that come about?
MEANS: Well my parents like to say that the only instrument they can play is the radio. And I don’t come from a musical family at all. That was something that I found purely of my own volition. And literally from the first week of getting my first violin on the through the ages, I couldn’t stop touching it. It was an obsession from the very beginning. An absolute obsession. And you know some people talk about how they take a circuitous route through life to find out what their major is that responds best to their calling or their identity. From the sixth grade, I knew I wanted to major in music and music was going to be it and violin was going to be it. I would have my dad pick me up from school and I would have him drop me off at the music building at my local university about 3:30 and I said come pick me up at 10. And I would just practice or go to the music library and listen to music and read books and write out music and all kinds of things. It was an obsession from the very beginning.
STIPECH: So just how old were you when you started the violin?
MEANS: I first started playing the violin in sixth grade, which actually looking back on it was way too late. I mean if you want to be especially in the very, very, very congested instruments, I’m thinking violin, cello, piano in particular, and you want to do that as a professional performing career, the earlier the better. Most the people I know who are professional performing musicians on those instruments started at between ages 3 and 5, so I had a lot of catching up to do and honestly many times still feel I do, I have a lot of catching up to do so.
STIPECH: Alright, you mentioned that you kind of on your own volition. What drew you to even explore that and what led you to end up with a violin in your hands? What was it about that instrument that drew you?
MEANS: At my elementary school there is a process by which the local high school brought on a certain day the band the choir and the orchestra for us to listen to, because the next year in school you would have to choose one of those. And being a male, all of my male friends were gravitating to three instruments: the trumpet, percussion or sax. I didn’t want to be like my friends and I remember the high school orchestra came and played a piece of music, to this day I cannot remember what it was, that I loved and I’d never heard live. Based on that, I went with violin and I never looked back. And I don’t know really what it was even about it but it was something that called to me, and you know I think that certainly the arts, but I think a lot of other professions, too, ideally every profession, there’s an element of it choosing you and you not choosing it and of it being a calling or there being something about it that resonates in a deep way, and I say it certainly did that for me. I learned and not only did I love it I was okay at it, which made me love it even more because it gave me discipline and confidence and it gave me something that I could sort of use an identity. And it felt good to feel like among my peer group and other people that that was my thing, my schtick, so to speak.
STIPECH: So how did your parents feel about this. You had this obsession with the music and playing the violin. Overall were they supportive?
MEANS: They were, but they never would attend my concerts very often. Because the music that I played was not the kind of music that they enjoyed. So, they provided me rides of which I can no retrospectively very grateful for. But music was kind of a solitary endeavor for me. Now there were times that I felt that music was my best and only friend. And maybe that’s why I have been so devoted to it. But yeah, I was not, I did not have the doting parents who came to every recital and were in the front row and had the video camera and all that. No, it was, “Where do you need to be dropped off Matt? When do you need to be picked up?”
STIPECH: So, outside of playing the violin which sounds like it was pretty much the main focus of your childhood, what else was going on. What were your early years like?
MEANS: Well, I grew up in an environment that was far from privileged. I grew up in a low in come household. I remember very clearly there were some weekends where we just didn’t have money to get groceries. I remember that it was privilege if my parents could afford to buy me a $3 magazine in a given month. And so we moved around a lot. My father was in and out of jobs constantly. My mom couldn’t work because she had and still does have multiple sclerosis. And was disabled and I probably moved 13 or 15 times by the time I graduated high school, sometimes because of eviction, sometimes because we had to downsize because where we living the rent was too high, but it was not a charmed life and it was a childhood that while I was safe, was a childhood of need and of want. And so I think that in some ways music for me was also an escape. Music at times I felt rescued me. When I saw other students thriving or being given opportunities or having access to things I didn’t have access to, music was a point of pride for me. I like to tell people you know that you know I was three times handicapped. I was a low-income background, I was in a sexual minority and I was an ethnic minority, I was a person of color. And so I learned growing up as a child before I became completely independent that the world operates under a complex set of guidelines and expectations. And so those experiences, all of those experiences, helped inform and still to this day inform who I am now.
STIPECH: So matt early on you’ve got the violin which has now become your identity and kind of your comfort zone. You’re moving around a lot you’ve got this uncertain economic situation. And describe the world of matt means now as you head through high school and into your college years.
MEANS: Violin was very all consuming. Because of my obsession with music and because of my upbringing and circumstances, I was not one of these children who had training with the Princeton review and a lot of preparation for college and everything. As a matter of fact, to a large degree I was flying by the seat of my pants. And I graduated from high school being a very unremarkable student. I think my cumulative GPA was like a 3.8 and I was ranked 44th in my high school graduating class. I was by no stretch of the imagination a valedictorian or salutatorian. That was never something honestly that I thought that I was capable of. And so I got done with my formative K through 12 schooling and then that’s when everything changed. Because once I started taking college classes, I was actually taking college classes before I got done with high school, but once I started to dive in to that more deeply, then it was like a switch went off. Now, its time for me to live up to my potential, so now I’ve declared a major, now I need to maximize everything that I’ve got. It was almost like I became a different person. And then I had to get an A in everything. And then everything had to be perfect, especially when it came to music.
STIPECH: Was there something in particular about you’re your time at the university of northern Colorado that brought about those significant changes in your life?
MEANS: Like many universities there is a student fee allocation process. Our student government controlled a lot of money in student fees just like is the case at our current university and in one given year, that student government decided to defund all the funding it had historically given to the performing arts, which at that time was several hundred thousand dollars. And the same year that student government also decided to fund all of athletics. So, the band geeks and the jocks decided to team up. We created an alliance. We got a slate together and the position I ran for turned out to be the most influential student position at my university, which was the student trustee position. It’s the student position on the university’s governing board, it would be like if there was a student regent and seven of our trustees were appointed by the Colorado governor, one was a faculty trusted and there was a student trustee. But I had to do a lot of research and I was running against somebody who had been in student government for two years and was very, very experienced. But because of this alliance between all of intercollegiate athletics and all of the college of performing and visual arts, our whole slate got elected into office of student government. And that represented a watershed moment for me. That year taught me that I could do things other than music. It was very, very important to me because it gave me a crash course in the whole phenomenon of higher education. And I had to, in board meetings, sit next to people who were at the top of their careers nationally. Who were operating at a level that was far beyond anything that I had ever conceived of, and I had to be able to speak cogently and call those people peers. And so it made me grow up. It made me maximize every iota of potential I had in my brain and my body. And learning that there was another part of me, or could be another part of me besides music, opened up a world that has stayed with me as you now know, today. You know I think everybody, I like to tell people, that we as human beings have needs that go beyond just eating, drinking and those kind of things. I think we all have a need to be loved. I think we all have a need to be inspired. And I was around people who were tremendously inspiring and those people helped root me, give me roots as a human being that I still draw upon today.
STIPECH: So as we move along the timeline now of your backstory you earned your bachelor degree from the University of Northern Colorado as one of the top graduates there and then you applied, I believe, for music schools to pursue your advanced degrees. And I understand it you were one of a small number of top level students accepted into the Cleveland Institute of Music and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Why did you choose the Cleveland Institute and what was that experience like for you?
MEANS: At that time, it was one of the preeminent, especially if you were a stringed instrument player, one of the preeminent private music conservatories in the world. The Cleveland Orchestra, which is one of the finest orchestras in the world, arguable the best orchestra in the country, was just steps away and most of their principle players were faculty members of that institution. And Case Western Reserve University, where I got all of my non-musical courses, was also an excellent, excellent institution very closely related and aligned with Cleveland Clinic, which is an excellent hospital. And that community just in general Cleveland, Ohio has deep roots artistically culturally it’s a fascinating community. So, I decided that I was going to fly from the proverbial nest and I was going to go, wanted to go as deeply and as intensively as I could into one of the artistic and cultural capitals that this world can offer. And I went from being at a university of 12,000 or 13,000 students to in the case of CIM, being at a small conservatory which had at that time a limit of 350 students, and it was a very, very, very, very, very intense, but ultimately beneficial experience in training me in becoming the very best musician I could be. And I was there for five years through both of my graduate degrees.
STIPECH: With your advanced degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music in hand, it was back to Colorado for a year of teaching and looking for the right career opportunity. It seems you found that opportunity in Kansas, where you were a tenured track assistant professor at Fort Hays State University. That’s where you also served as a department chair for a couple years. But it sounds like you still weren’t ready to pursue college administration as your full-time work.
MEANS: I was still so young and there was still so much performing and teaching that I wanted to do. So much research I wanted to do. I had experience, but also enjoyed being professor, because I think in many regards being a full time teaching professor is one of the most joyous and rewarding occupations in the whole landscape, just period. And I was loving it. That president and my provost at the time said, “Well, we want you to keep doing something administrative in nature.” And they said, “Do you have any interest in working with high achieving students?” I said, “No, but that sounds intriguing.” I took that on. At that point there was basically no programming for high achieving students at that university. There was a strong desire from the faculty for there to be programming. And over the course of the next 10-11 years, I worked on it. And the result was eventually being the founding director of their Honors College., which wound up occupying my last four or five years at that university before I came here to Reno.
STIPECH: And you said in our prior conversations a couple times that you felt very welcome to campus, very comfortable in Reno. People have been very open hearted, I think, something along those lines. Give me a quick sense of how that experience has been for 13 months for you.
MEANS: Yeah. Well, I have to tell you that in some ways professionally I maybe I’ve never been as fulfilled as I am now. The University is full of wonderful, wonderful, wonderful people who are so dedicated and so giving. I’m really almost speechless at this because every person that I’ve me and have had the privilege of working with at the University has been a real gem, a real pearl. And I pinch myself that I have been placed at this place at this point of my life, to be able to have this experience. So, I am beyond grateful Beyond grateful.
STIPECH: Well, Matt, you came to the University last year as the director of the Honors Program. It’s been on campus about 60 years. It’s a brand new chapter now. It’s now the honors college. You’re now the dean, so what’s your thought process, your philosophy about the Honors College, and give us a little sense of what’s next, what’s the future look like as you go forward.
MEANS: So, while the honor college moniker is not new, I will say that all of the changes that we’re implementing in the next five years represent the progressive edge of what honors colleges are doing nationally in this country. So I’m very excited about the innovation element to our strategic plan that we’re launching here this fall, that I think will help set us apart from our peers in remarkable ways. You know to a large degree if you look at their models, whether they’re called honors colleges or honors programs, the majority of them in this country are basically following the same tried and true recipe which is get the students in the door, have them take a whole bunch of “hard” classes, give them a notation on their transcript or diploma and graduate them. It can be so much more than that. It should be so much more than that. And that’s what were doing here. Were really trying to create an experience, a developmental experience, not just a recognition experience, that is individually transformative and helps students become more than they could have ever conceived of themselves beforehand. And that philosophical bent, along with changing our admissions procedure, our structure, our pathway, our mentorship/coaching support component, and our external outreach is really what’s going to differentiate us from other honors colleges, not only in the region but in the country.
STIPECH: So how much of that vision that differentiates the university’s honors college is because of the way experienced your education and your music and the diff opportunities. I know you’re a modest person, but how much does the matt means factor help create this new vision, do you think?
MEANS: Oh, that’s hard for me to say objectively.
STIPECH: You know you’ve got a vision that comes obviously from your heart, and your soul and there’s a spirit there that I can hear. How do you see that passion and vision that you have almost energizing this whole process?
MEANS: There is certainly a large element every day when I think of what I do that’s tie around, how can structure my work in such a way that these students are exposed to and have the benefits of four years that are even more remarkable than the four years I had. How can I go beyond that? How can I put them in touch with people and resources and opportunities that will have a similarly or even more impactful experience than I did? The students in our program are so remarkable and so inspirational to me and come to our community with such wonderful, beautiful spirits and such incredible potential, they are easy causes to advocate for and they give every day countless reasons why you should be spending all of your waking hours doing everything you can for them. And there is a reward that is incredible. You know, I’m going to say something a little heretical here. I love my profession. I love music I love the violin I love performing I will tell you and I know that what I’m about to say is probably going to get a lot of people mad, so be it. To a certain degree, music is a little selfish. In that when you’re on stage performing, there is never a moment that goes by when you’re not thinking about yourself in some way shape or form. You have to. You have to think, “What am I doing, what am I creating?” Your audience may be getting a lot from that, but there’s a lot of you tied up into what you’re doing. There is a tremendous liberating element to being an honors dean or just working in higher education administration in the sense that everything that I do is for somebody else. And there is so much less of me in the musical sense that is brought into the decisions and the work that I do as an honors dean. And that sense of service of serving others of being beholden to something other than oneself. There is a level of that I get in the work that I do currently, that is there at a level or in a way that is unique compared to musical sphere
STIPECH: That really says a lot about why you’re the dean of the Honors College here at the University. Matt, before I let you go … as you were describing your childhood you said you hand three things working against you so to speak, you’re from a low-income background, you’re a person of color and also, you mentioned being a sexual minority. I wanted to circle back to that and give you an opportunity to talk more about that if you’d like.
MEANS: Well, I think that everybody that’s part of the GLBTQA community, you know that is a journey that doesn’t carry with it a set timeline. And there are so many variables that go into one’s journey in learning who they are. And those kinds of identifiers that makes it on one hand challenging, but on the other hand, also deeply gratifying. And certainly for me it’s given me a greater heart and understanding for what that journey is like for others. Certainly for me its given me an appreciation for those who champion the rights of those who are on the fringes or operate from minority perspectives in general, and it’s given me a greater understanding of what is possible in life and in a community. Because were all a mixture and blend of so many different influences. You know, I’ll give you an example. That’s one of my identifiers, but also my faith is one of my most important identifiers. And that is a discussion much longer discussion perhaps for another time, but those are not two things that I view as mutually exclusive. And so, when I think of who I am, person of color, sexual minority, faith- based and -driven, musician, academic administrator, pet lover, video game player, you know, these are all things that mix, interchange in strange and unpredictable kinds of ways. But I will say that these are all things that help me ultimately relate and empathize I think with a big cross section of people who I interact with on a day-to-day basis, and that’s important. Because I think if you’re an honors dean or you’re in a position where your work puts you into contact with a lot of people, empathy is maybe one of the most important elements or qualities that you perhaps can have or need.
STIPECH: Matt Means, Dean of the new Honors College at the University of Nevada, Reno. I’m David Stipech with University Marketing Communications. I hope you enjoyed this edition of UNPACKED, the new podcast from Nevada Today. You can find out more about the Honors College online at unr.edu/honors. And for daily and weekly news from the University, be sure to subscribe to the University’s news source, Nevada Today at unr.edu/Nevada Today. That’s also where you can listen to the latest episodes, or find UNPACKED wherever you get your podcasts. And be sure to like, share and subscribe to the UNPACKED podcast.