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College junior Caroline Ohlson is the only student at Penn who has created her own major—arts, entertainment and popular culture—through the Individualized Major program.

Credit: Courtesy of Alden Terry

Out of the 6,311 students enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences, only one is enrolled in a major that she designed herself.

The individualized major is a program in the College that allows students to design their own curriculum and, essentially, create their own department.

The College offers more than 50 majors and 80 minors, but some students have a unique vision for what they want to study.

“There are students who find that the standard majors may not satisfy their interests or goals,” said Hocine Fetni, assistant dean for academic advising in the College. “Exceptional, creative, self-motivated students are encouraged to explore the individualized major so they can create a major that is based on various interdisciplinary fields of knowledge.”

Fetni said he typically meets with students interested in the program about once a week. As of now, though, only one current Penn student has successfully created her own major.

College junior Caroline Ohlson has created her own major called arts, entertainment and popular culture.

“I have always loved music, film and TV and thought that I wanted to work in the entertainment industry,” Ohlson said. “I felt there was nothing offered here that was really getting at what I was really interested in, which is the business and more practical sides of entertainment and arts.”

After struggling to find a major that fit her interests, Ohlson decided to submit an intensive application detailing the plans for her major in the spring of her sophomore year.

“I put an incredible amount of time and effort my sophomore spring meeting with professors, discussing my idea, sorting everything out and convincing people how passionate I was about this,” Ohlson said. “I emailed every professor I could find.”

Having now worked on the major for almost a full year, Ohlson said that the experience was worth all the work that went into planning it.

“It’s been so worth it, I absolutely love every class I’m taking for this major,” Ohlson said. “I’m really happy that I was given this opportunity because I understand how selective it is and how difficult it is to get it approved.”

College junior Serena Bian was not as successful in pursuing an individualized major.

“I knew the subjects that I wanted to study were more intersectional with environmental sustainability, positive psychology, and management,” said Bian, who is currently studying psychology. “I enjoy learning about the things that I enjoy learning, and I don’t really find that, to be honest, in the classes I’m taking for psychology.”

Bian said she decided that pursuing an individualized major was “so complicated” that it wasn’t worth it.

“If it was easier and if I had been more supported, I think I definitely would have gone through the individualized major,” Bian said. “It’s very difficult to get approved and it rarely happens, even though Penn advertises the fact they have an individualized major.”

This advertising is what persuaded 2014 College graduate Shoshana Akabas to transfer to Penn and double major in English and organic chemistry, concepts and communication.

“Double majoring is more difficult at other schools [and] I wanted to be able to study high-level organic chemistry and English,” Akabas said. “My major was mostly graduate organic chemistry courses ... I knew that I wanted to focus on organic chemistry very early ... I didn’t want to have to be undergrad first to get to [the courses].”

Akabas said that having an individualized major allowed her to land her “dream job” at Pfizer, editing academic and scientific articles right out of college — a job that typically goes to graduate students or those with a doctoral degree.

“I was able to get a high-paying job doing exactly what I wanted to do coming out of college, and if I had only had a Chemistry major that wouldn’t have been enough,” Akabas said. “I would not have gotten this if I didn’t have this specific major.”

Yet her advice for students considering this route is, “Don’t do it.”

“It was so difficult, and made so difficult by the school in a way that I thought was unnecessary,” Akabas said. She cited the complicated process of going through her advisors and the committee in order to change just one of her classes. “The bureaucracy associated with it was such a nightmare.”

For Penn’s only current student who designed her own major, the program has been worth it.

“You have to be someone who is willing to take a lot of initiative and keep yourself on track,” Ohlson said. “I think that it’s a really unique opportunity that I’m really grateful to have, and it’s the perfect fit for me and what I want to do.”

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