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Drexel University Hosts National Conference for Individualized Major Programs

By Erica Levi Zelinger, Communication Specialist, Pennoni Honors College

Lauren Grimanis spent two weeks in a small rural village in the Eastern Region of Ghana in 2007. She lived with a host family, volunteered in an orphanage, and became engrossed with figuring out how to improve the impoverished community of Akaa by finding sustainable, innovative solutions to global issues.

Lauren was a rising senior in high school.

By the time she arrived at The College of Wooster in northcentral Ohio, she’d started the Akaa Project, a non-profit that gives this Eastern Ghana community access to quality education, healthcare, and financial resources.

Lauren enrolled in international relations courses, economics classes, and Africana studies. But international relations, she felt, was too much about the countries with power. Economics was too much about the numbers. So the highly motivated student opted to design her own major.

Her trajectory made Lauren the perfect alumni success story at the 6th Annual National Conference for Individualized Major Programs, hosted by Drexel University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College.

“Being locked into one discipline may be the wrong way to spark social innovation,” Lauren quoted from the new social entrepreneur manifesto, “Power of Unreasonable People” she’d just read.

The individualized model gave Lauren the ability to develop a Global Development and Management major and that, combined with her interdisciplinary curiosity and out-of-the-classroom independent actions, catapulted her into her career.

The nearly 60 IMP faculty, professionals, students and Drexel colleagues gathered in the grand meeting room of LeBow Hall March 6 needed to hear Lauren’s presentation. With representation from 25 different colleges and universities, this conference has become the basis for a new national organization for individualized major programs (IMPs), helping them overcome administrative challenges and offer a forum for students nationwide to share their unique individualized-major stories.

Fletcher Linder, Matt Chamberlain, and Phil Frana of the Independent Scholars Program at James Madison University describe the “approval gauntlet” they must challenge to get decisions made.

But “what liberal education can and should be,” Linder says, “is rigorous academic inquiry spearheaded by students themselves.”

Universities have to respond to change in the environment with innovation and creativity, but traditional structures stand in the way.

Panel discussions throughout the two-day conference presented concerns about how to grapple with the issue of prerequisites, the common critique that a student in an IMP knows only broad information across many disciplines, and the transition of certain programs from incubation stage to formal major.

It takes a certain type of person to pursue this type of program.

“You have to defend yourself when you tell people your major,” says Ricky Holtz, a student at University Connecticut, who sat on a student panel about integrative learning in the student experience.

Kathryn Gardner, one of Drexel’s first two custom-designed major (CSDN) graduates, agrees.

“It’s an ability to say that you are wrong, but that you want to know why,” Gardner says. “ Having the initiative to go and figure out why it was wrong.”

The CSDN major took in its first four students only three years ago.

“The Custom-Designed Major has, in a very short time, grown into national prominence,” says Director Kevin Egan. “At last year's conference, two Drexel CSDN students took part in a panel discussion about their experiences in the program, and I had a number of people come up to me after and express how impressed they were by these students. That was a signal that we have some very special students in the program; and, now, we are demonstrating, at a more institutional level, the strength and ability of this program.”

The CSDN major program has added one more distinctive program to the wealth of opportunities Drexel offers, says Pennoni Honors College Dean Dave Jones. “The CSDN attracts and retains students who want to craft their own major and are capable of doing it—with considerable mentoring from interested faculty,” Jones says.

At Hampshire College, where all students create their own personalized areas of study, comedian Eugene Mirman studied what he wanted to study: comedy.

The Russian-born funnyman and keynote speaker at the National Conference for IMPs said he paired his classes in writing, mass culture, and film with other experiences, such as running a radio comedy show out of the basement of his dorm.

“A lot of majors had some long title with a colon in it and info on both sides, but I studied comedy,” Mirman says. “[At Hampshire], they let you guide your own education. I convinced professors to let me do a 1-hour stand-up act as a thesis.”

“Why are universities funny?” one conference attendee asked Mirman.

“Because of their fear of ideas,” Mirman quipped.

Eighteen years after graduating from his self-guided studies, the voice of Gene in Bob’s Burgers, the landlord in Flight of the Concords, and one of physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s comedic sidekicks on the radio show StarTalk, doesn’t get why the concept of an IMP is considered so outlandish in some circles.

The JMU staff agrees. Their program, Linder says, is a mix of hard and soft skills that enhance creativity, self-directedness and perseverance.

“We offer skills that enhance a student’s aptitude and confidence in working independently and collectively,” says Linder.

Some universities, like the Drexel CSDN, offer “skill-enhancing workshops” where students develop a co-curricular plan of study, contemplate their co-op plans, undergo professional interviews, and grow together as a cohort.

“[The CSDN] demonstrates through the co-curricular opportunities afforded by the Honors College, and Drexel as a whole, the uniqueness of the program among other IMPs,” says Egan. “Opportunities like coop, the STAR program (and other undergraduate research opportunities), interdisciplinary research and community-based learning initiatives like the Smart House and the ExCITe Center offer an integrative learning experience to which other IMPs don't necessarily have access. This will be an opportunity for Drexel to really showcase those elements and how they manifest through the Custom-Designed Major.