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Freedom and creativity for self-design majors

By Angela Clews
Correspondent

For Athena Georgiou, her “aha” moment came during her first semester at the College.

Students must often take a combination of courses from the College’s different schools to create their own individualized majors. (Courtney Wirths / Photo Editor)
Students must often take a combination of courses from the College’s different schools to create their own individualized majors. (Courtney Wirths / Photo Editor)

 “My FSP talked a lot about language, and I realized how interested I was in it, so that’s what I decided to do,” she said.

This was ironic, considering her track record in high school: a perpetual honors student with an aversion to English classes. In fact, she began her college career without declaring a major. 

“I thought I would do something with business, but I had no set career path in mind,” Georgiou said.

Once she met Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences Benjamin Rifkin, everything changed. Suddenly, she had an entirely new path. Now, she is one of a growing number of self-designed majors.

The College is not the only college offering its students the option of designing their own major, but there are very few, including Antioch College, Lebanon Valley College and Gettysburg College.

The process may not be a quick one, but for some students, it is extremely fulfilling.

Georgiou said, explaining her communication sciences and disorders major, “it’s a mix of the Communication Disorders minor, some Deaf Education courses, and some linguistics.”

To get there, though, was challenging. 

“Most of the professors I went to for help were pushing their ideas … instead of listening to what I wanted to do,” she said. “But after I found a professor who was willing to help with my ideas, it was easy.”

As the name might suggest, no two self-designed majors are the same. 

“There are quite a few people who have the same self-designed major as I do,” Georgiou said. “None of us are identical but we all helped each other out to come up with courses, capstones, etc.” 

There are also plenty of options, including religious studies, Italian, speech pathology, creative writing and cognitive science.

Kat Ray, a transfer student from the University of Maine, had a different experience. 

“I had always had my eye on anthropology, and when I realized that it was what I wanted to do, I had to do a self-designed major because (it) isn’t offered at the College,” said Ray. Her major  “is a mix of a lot of things already. I’m taking sociology, anthropology, biology, history and physics courses for my major.”

Ray, however, did not stray far from her original major. 

“I started out as a sociology major before transferring to TCNJ, switched to psychology and then remembered how much I loved anthropology when I took ANT111 last fall,” she said. Originally, though, she, “(wanted) to teach or go into some sort of clinical setting. Now I hope to work for the National Parks.”

Anyone looking to design his or her own major has to draw up a proposal for their potential major, then go through Richard Kamber, the self-designed major coordinator. After that, they must go with their “advisor to a committee meeting and present (their) program to professors from all over campus,” Ray said. 

When she presented hers, “They suggested some changes, I made them, and now it’s official,” she said. 

Both Georgiou and Ray feel lucky that they will still likely graduate within four years because of the autonomy allowed by self-designing. 

“Even after transferring and changing my major a year before an on-time graduation, I might make it,” Ray said.

Students have the freedom to take whatever classes they choose.

“If I decide that I don’t want to take a particular course, I can take it off my required course list,” she said. “I can add anything I want. I take classes whenever I want to. No one is really telling me what to do.” 

Ray agrees. 

“I love that I can tailor my options to what I want to do for my career and the job options,” Ray said. “Since excavations and digs are part of what I hope to do, I’m going to Alaska this summer to learn practical field school methods with a professor from Adelphi University and several other students.” 

Ray doesn’t know of any other anthropology majors at the College. 

“I’ve got my fingers crossed for a few more. I’ve had a couple people talk to me about it,” she said. 

Ray plans on taking courses at Rutgers and Adelphi to supplement my degree.

“The hardest part of being a self design major is that I really need to look outside the College for some courses.” 

Georgiou feels differently. 

“The hardest part is not having any concrete rules,” she said. “I don’t want to lose track of myself and fall behind. I have to do so much on my own and it can get overwhelming at times.”

At the end of the day, the process of designing your own major is something you have to commit to. Self-design students are pioneers in their fields.

This is just one of the many benefits of being a student at the College. The College knows that it will not always be able to offer majors that will suit everyone, so they trust their students enough to allow them to set out on their own. As for Georgiou and Ray, they’re thrilled to have found their niches.

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