The individualized major is listed among the College of Arts and Science's roughly 60 existing courses of study, but only a handful of students pursue the option. Each year, typically fewer than five students graduate with an individualized major — in 2012 there was only one.
Students interested in an individualized major must go through a series of procedures much more complicated than declaring an existing major. Declaration forms for existing majors are usually one page long, but the individualized major application is a thick stack of paperwork including instructions for the declaration process, forms to request faculty advisers and worksheets for which classes to take.
"We want this to be a very serious application. It's not something you can just walk in the office and declare, without doing all the research and deliberations," said Hocine Fetni, assistant dean for academic advising in the College of Arts and Sciences. "Every month I have about 10 students come to me and say they are interested in doing an individualized major. But after I explain to them the process, most of them are not interested anymore."
Not everyone agrees with the school's policy. One of them is College junior Merv Arnold-Lyons, who attempted to pursue an individualized major but was turned away by the process. Arnold-Lyons was interested in combining studies of psychology, design and marketing, which relate to his start-up called Hangify, a social networking mobile application.
Arnold-Lyons recalled his meeting with Fetni as one of his worst advising experiences at Penn. "I went in there, and he was clearly expressing that he didn't believe that I could put the effort to pull it off. But given the fact that I already spent two years taking classes related to that individualized major I have in mind, I am really not afraid of doing work," he said. "I just want to study what I want to study."
The main reason for the extensive application, Fetni said, is that students who want to pursue individualized majors have little departmental support and thus completing the major is likely to be much more challenging than they expect.
"There isn't a department for individualized majors, so when you declare such a major, you are basically on your own to create a proper academic department. What if your advisor is busy and unavailable? Who do you turn to for help?" he said.
Fetni pointed out that students who declare an individualized major are required to have a second major, in case they "get stuck" in completing the classes for the individualized major.
Another rationale behind the College's policies is to encourage students with diverse or specific academic interests to fully explore the wide range of current majors and minors offered. "The College offers about 60 majors and 70 minors. It's very unlikely that these fields can't satisfy a student's academic interest at all, so we encourage them to think about a combination of several majors and minors," Fetni said.
Fetni stressed the importance of diversity in an undergraduate eduction. "We want students to take advantage of the liberal arts education we have. Have an open mind and learn as much as you can. Figure out your path as you take different classes. Some things are better suited for graduate schools," he added.
Arnold-Lyons said the inadequate support for students who want to do individualized majors is more of a philosophical question than a practical one. "I think the individualized major is something Penn likes to say it has, but not actually something they are supporting," Arnold-Lyons said. "I would say it's a rather disappointing experience. Is Penn going to help me learn what I am interested in, or do I have to do this on my own?"
While Fetni advocated for a liberal arts education at Penn, Arnold-Lyons is skeptical.
"It's funny how [Fetni] talked about a liberal arts education. I have a friend at Amherst College who can complete his major for eight credits. Majors at Penn take a lot more credits, so students have less room to take different electives," Arnold-Lyons said.
Compared to the College, individualized majors are much more common at the graduate level. Sorrel Alburger, a master of liberal arts candidate, is finishing up her studies in development and social justice, an individualized major she came up with on her own. Alburger is a full-time employee at a financial services firm in New York, and she travels to Penn to take several classes every week.
"My work is involved with corporate business, but I have always been interested in the social justice side. I want to shift my focus to the non-profit side, to learn about history, ethics, international development, etc. I want to have a broad understanding of society and transform my current skills in business to fit my interests in doing non-profit work," Alburger said.
She added that her program offers tremendous support for students. "Most people in the MLA program have extensive academic or working experience, so we all had very specific things to study. So in a sense, every degree is an individualized degree, but the advisers made sure every student stays on track, regardless of their fields of study," she said. "I know that things are pretty different for undergrads."
The Student Committee on Undergraduate Education addressed individualized majors in its White Paper released earlier this year.
"We did research and investigations and found out that while a lot of students are interested in individualized majors, they see the rules and policies as barriers of entry," SCUE Chair and College junior Laura Sorice said.
SCUE recommended more discussions between students and faculty members, because students might not understand how the pieces come together in achieving their academic goal. SCUE says the University should help familiarize students with the process and explain to them the reasons behind it, Sorice said, adding that increased discussion may encourage the University to rethink whether all the polices are truly necessary.
"The fact that Penn offers individualized majors is really important. Students should be able pursue their interests and be creative and innovative," Sorice said. "That said, the individualized major program we have currently is not perfect — not because the academic side is not good or adequate, but mostly because of the policies and rules. Better transparency and communication would help with the situation."
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