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Campus & Community

First Custom-Designed Major Graduates Still Making Their Own Paths

October 2, 2013

Kathryn Gardner at Columbia University

Drexel undergraduates have more than 70 possible majors to choose from. But for some students, such as Kathryn Gardner, none of those majors is quite the right fit.

Or, at least, that was the case until two years ago.

That’s when the Pennoni Honors College launched its Custom-Designed Major program. Now a select few students have the opportunity to design their own educational path. And this past spring, the program’s first two graduates completed theirs.

One of those inaugural graduates is Gardner. In 2011, when the program began, she was already trying to make her own way through her Drexel education, combining the general studies program in the Goodwin College of Professional Studies with the part-time architecture program in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

She had quickly discovered after coming to Drexel in 2008 that there was no program that exactly fit the career she was hoping to fashion, as a conservationist specializing in architectural preservation.

A career like that would require expertise in architecture, environment, history and construction management. To try to go down such a track with a background in only one of those disciplines, Gardner said, didn’t seem right.

But that’s not what she had to do, partly because the Custom-Designed Major came along.

The program was created with students like Gardner in mind, said Kevin Egan, acting director for the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry in the Honors College. It’s made for students motivated enough to not just get an education, but to design their own curriculum as well.

“It really takes a pretty special student,” Egan said.

Gardner’s Custom-Designed Major was titled Architectural Conservation and Sustainable Living. Her individualized program, which incorporated courses from several different disciplines, put her on track for where she is now: enrolled in a graduate program in historic preservation at Columbia University.

“Having the undergraduate experience of what most students won’t experience until graduate school is, in my humble opinion, absolutely invaluable,” Gardner said.

Some Custom-Designed Major students transfer into the program after starting elsewhere at Drexel, while others enter as freshmen.

Whenever they enter, Egan said, they have to take an unusual degree of ownership over their studies.

“Its goal is really to create sort of an entrepreneurial environment for students,” he said.

The students do get a great deal of support, though. They meet regularly with Egan and faculty mentors for help crafting their personalized tracks. The time and attention required is one reason the program is limited to just 10 new students per year.

“It’s a pretty involved process,” Egan said, “and a lot of the effort is on the student.”

Next spring, less than three years after its Custom-Designed Major program began, Drexel will host a national conference on individualized majors.

“I think that we’ve become a really solid player in the national scene,” Egan said.

Drexel’s other first Custom-Designed Major graduate, Kevin Matthews, finished his program in Global Fashion Industry in the spring. He took courses in design and merchandising, business, marketing, economics and other subjects. He now works for the corporate office of Urban Outfitters.

Two years in, Egan said, the Custom-Designed Major program is already having impressive results. It’s not a program for every student. But for a few students, it’s a perfect fit.

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