When College junior Jackie Koehn told her coach she needed to quit squash this year, it was so she could work toward a dual degree in mechanical engineering.
For Koehn, who is majoring in cognitive science, the decision to pursue academics came a bit late in college. As a two-sport athlete and stand-up comedian, the extra haul for engineering would bring her Penn career up to six years.
“Most people are shocked at what I’m doing,” Koehn said. “The fact I’m trying to do another bachelor’s degree so late in the game, and still graduate, is pretty inconceivable.”
But after ruling sports out as a viable career, Koehn has since swapped practices and away games with study groups at Skirkanich Hall.
“It’s hard enough to do work at Penn. It’s even harder to work while you simultaneously question what it is that you do. It can get exhausting and crazy.”
For the past 30 years, Penn has held court with dual degrees in the Ivy League: over 4,000 alumni have left University City with a dual degree, and 898 undergraduates currently have a foot in two schools.
As of February, a new dual major that opened up offerings in the College and Engineering has lured dozens to sign up — and deterred as many with its 20 extra requirements.
For Koehn, though, who comes from a suburb in Colorado, the six years she will take to graduate from Penn are worth the haul since she hopes to one day design outdoor apparel.
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dennis DeTurck, who helped sculpt the dual-degree initiative, says the option was designed to allow such undergraduates to dip into sciences from the humanities, and vice versa.
“It takes a fair amount of strategizing,” DeTurck said. “But it’s unique to Penn where students do two degrees or multiple majors to an extent you don’t see at other schools.”
The flexibility between the College and Engineering majors is one of the latest additions to Penn’s dual academic culture, one that leads students to combine paths less available at peer schools. Earlier this year, VIPER — a new energy research and engineering dual-degree program — recruited its inaugural class.
“I think it’s nice to balance smaller classes in the College with larger classes in Wharton,” said Chris Chan, a Wharton and College dual-degree student from Vancouver majoring in anthropology and marketing. “I think students who pursue a dual degree epitomize the idea of ‘One University.’”
As with anyone taking on two degrees, managing the load takes a large dose of self-motivation, persistence and ingenuity.
College and Engineering senior Roashan Ayene, who came to Penn planning to pursue a pre-med track in the College, signed up for an engineering degree his freshman year and ended up with 57 credits.
Due to careful management, summer credits and abroad credits, Ayene has juggled dozens of political science papers and computer science exams over seven semesters thus far.
In spring of his junior year — between On-Campus Recruitment, fraternity rush and running trips for the International Affairs Association — his seven classes took a personal toll.
“That was awful,” Ayene said. “It was the worst semester. I had to find a way to prioritize.”
But a College and Engineering dual degree, Ayene said, was the best decision that helped land a full-time job with a consulting firm starting August.
“It’s one of the coolest opportunities at Penn,” Ayene said, adding that dual degrees stay mostly under the radar. “If you don’t know about it going in, I’m not sure you’d find out.”
Among the hundreds of degrees offered at Penn since 1740, dual degrees have become part of Penn’s lifeblood. Today, nearly one in every 10 undergraduates has signed up to go dual, taking as little as three years or as many as six to complete their studies. This rising trend raises the central question: is a dual degree necessary?
Recently, Penn has hired 13 Penn Integrates Knowledge professors and implemented Vagelos and VIPER as dual-degree programs. The latter initiatives find roots in the Jerome Fisher Management & Technology Program (1977), which first equipped Penn students to solve real-world problems. It’s a far throw from when the College was the only game in town and connects disparate disciplines to spark innovation.
But despite these official programs, a certain population of the school continues to exist on its own dual wavelength — running to two parts of campus and living the life of two students at once.
“A dual degree looked cool going in freshman year, so I signed up since I had the GPA,” College senior David Schwartz said.
“But ultimately, you realize as you go on, there are tons of options, like getting minors.”
Schwartz, who found taking electives like Finance 100 to be as valuable as a dual degree between the College and Engineering, dropped out of the option his sophomore year.
He now takes statistics and economics in the College and applies those skills 10-15 hours a week at a financial institution downtown.
Among the 898 students taking on dual degrees, 438 are primarily in the College, 326 in engineering and 47 in nursing — a ratio that places College students at the fore looking to branch out.
With only 87 candidates for an additional degree, Wharton remains the most competitive school. Its GPA cut off is 3.4 (over the standard 3.0), which comes as no surprise since it’s often seen as the fortress on campus where start ups are launched as frequently as other Ivies churn out Rhodes Scholars.
Coming out of the 2008 financial crisis that left students in a blind spot, there is also a monetary interest for students to go dual. A dual degree landed College graduates $6000 more on average in 2010.
“Penn individuals bring a broad portfolio of skills to the job search process,” Career Services Director Pat Rose said. “And great students lead to great employers.”
“I think it’s a sign of academic accomplishment to pursue two separate degrees, finish both requirements and show you’re doing well.”
Janice Bellace, the founder of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business and law professor, sees the dual degree as a unique Penn asset: “Penn can do something that no other Ivy school can do.”
Noting Penn’s four undergraduate schools, Bellace sees untapped potential for Penn to create “sustained total curriculum” programs. The genesis of the Huntsman program, she said, came only after she heard that many Wharton students were taking International Relations classes.
“[A dual degree] is not a question of better, but it’s different. Some students are better matched staying in one school.”
But if the dual degree is glamorous in theory, the day-to-day reality may not be so smooth for some students. Several outside a joint program cite solo navigation, a lack of support and self-imposed pressure to get it all done.
Michael Rivera, a senior and Undergraduate Assembly member who linked his Digital Media Design degree with a music major, says a dual degree is the only feasible way he can hang onto all of his “dreams.”
Potential jobs Rivera would someday like to try include software engineer, professor, politician with a law background and musician-songwriter.
“I know people find fault in this, but if I didn’t do a dual degree, I would feel insecure. I don’t think a minor is just taken as seriously.”
Like Koehn, Rivera sees opting for a five-year college plan as a solution to fitting all his interests in.
According to DeTurck, the penchant to go dual at Penn rises either out of industrial need or at other times intellectual developments. The pursuit of a practical liberal arts education has become a popular path to get the best of both worlds.
Abe Sutton, a Wharton and College sophomore majoring in political science and finance, realized after the Cram-and-Jam study session last year that College economics was not what he was looking for. After a Wharton friend showed him how to use a budget tool, he saw how many skills he could pick up if he switched to finance— a more “practical” side of economics.
“At Penn, any student pursuing two majors or more will find it manageable,” he said. “It’s just a question of finding the right balance.”
Nevertheless, M&T senior Geoffroy Bablon, who concentrates in entrepreneurship, believes there is a downside to pursuing degrees outside of a joint program: “A dual degree is tough. You don’t get to cut corners. There’s a full requirement load on both sides without a support network.”
Bablon, who works on a talent start-up called Famocracy, recalls that it was Wharton’s reputation and his passion for technology that led him to the joint M&T program.
He added that while the individualized dual degree plays well into Penn’s pre-professionalism, having too much breadth and not taking classes out of intellectual interest can result in a lack of “passion.”
His point strikes a larger chord about dual culture at Penn: for better or worse, many observers note dual degrees fan a mentality that the more you take on, the more you accomplish. While any high-achieving student might take six or seven classes, work with two schools and get the grades, the intention with a dual degree often involves heading to New York as a pragmatic individual with a liberal arts touch, like an I-banker who knows his classics.
But, as dual students attest, the compression of a dual degree also means not having time to learn a language or participate in Feb Club, or as Medical student Tony Wang admits, “not having read a novel in three years.”
Max Mintz, Engineering professor of 38 years, sees the pursuit of dual degrees as a “tension-generating” process.
“One needs to soak in the material, spend a lot of time working on it. Depth is something one needs to address. You have to ask the questions: how do things work? Why is this thing beautiful? Why is it not beautiful? It takes time to learn all that.”
For Mintz, the problem then becomes: “How do you trade depth and breadth with only 24 hours a day?”
While the intersection between the natural sciences and liberal arts is the most important intellectual development, according to higher education critic Louis Menand, it’s only so if depth is achieved in interdisciplinary ideas. At Penn, specializing in disparate spheres likely won’t change disciplinary innovations as it will leave dual-degree students well-positioned to contribute to new joint fields.
And yet, for a group of dual-degree students, there is a caveat. Some sign up to accommodate a unique set of interests that couldn’t have been met any other way.
“I missed the problem solving,” Koehn said. “College classes had interesting information, but I wanted to apply the physical principles.”
“For some students, it’s the right thing,” DeTurck said. “They’re really passionate about two things — one as career, one as an interest, putting together to make something powerful for the next stage in their lives.
“The downside is when it’s used as a credentializing exercise. Students’ time is too precious to be doing that.”
Penn will likely remain the foremost Ivy doling out dual degrees to undergraduates. Cornell is the only other Ivy that offers the option, but mandates that all students stay at least five years. For now, the demands of a dual degree at least offer Penn students a chance to self-pilot.
“Most successful people I know who found something their school couldn’t satisfy had a passion so intense, they went out on their own,” said fashion entrepreneur Tony Wang who, apart from being a medical student, finished his Wharton undergraduate degree in three years.
Wang also launched a clothing line at Penn and started a nationally read blog that has secured him press tickets to New York Fashion Week annually.
“When I came to Wharton I didn’t even like fashion,” Wang said. “I never expected that fashion would lead me to where I am now.”
At the Penn in Tech video conference in November, Career Services invited Penn’s start-up gurus on the West Coast to share their experiences.
“I looked potentially at a dual degree at Wharton, but I didn’t want to do it because all of my electives would have needed to be in Wharton,” said 2007 College graduate and history major Sebastian Tonkin, founder of the start-up Cloud 9 Wireless and co-author of Performance Marketing with Google Analytics.
“Students were asking me ‘what if I majored in this, can I still do the following things?’” Tonkin said. “I would stress a major doesn’t put people in a box. The idea that economics is the only major good for business is honestly ridiculous.”
Looking back, Tonkin said, he didn’t know while at Penn how much his approach to his history major — to impose structure on complex phenomena like war or class — would mirror his business approach in everyday life.
Four years later, the same skills enable him to creatively link advertisers with airports to offer free Wi-Fi all over the country.
“At the end of the day, college is only four years of your life, and the payout lasts for as long as you’re around. College is about learning how to learn and realizing that a lot of the most humdrum practical stuff comes after.”
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