It has been eight years since Penn approved a student for an individualized major. The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with advisors, alumni, and students to learn more about the individualized major program, why it is difficult to get approved, and why students are seeking more flexibility in their course of study.
The individualized major is designed to offer “exceptional, creative, self-motivated” students an opportunity to create their own multidisciplinary course of study outside of the majors offered in the College of Arts and Sciences. The program has been offered since the 1990s, and seven students have successfully completed an individualized major since 2000, according to Director of Academic Advising Carolyn Ureña.
In order for Penn to approve a plan for an individualized major, students must have already declared a standard major by the end of their sophomore year. The process includes writing an explanation of how their proposed major will provide a unique course of study, constructing a plan for their course of study, presenting a major research project, and selecting two faculty members from different departments to act as advisors.
Ureña said that “very few” students submit applications because they find that they are able to explore their interests through a course of study within the existing departments at Penn, which also provide a "home base" for community building.
“I would recommend it only for students who have explored all the existing options and cannot find a way to combine these offerings into a plan of study that can satisfy their interests,” Ureña said.
2018 College graduate Caroline Ohlson, the most recent student to complete an individualized major at Penn, pointed to perseverance as a key factor in her success in getting a proposal approved.
Ohlson’s major — called arts, entertainment, and popular culture — examined media entertainment through a popular culture and business lens. When she first discussed the individualized major with an advisor during her sophomore year, she was told that proposals were rarely accepted and encouraged to select a combination of existing majors and minors.
“I had to be really persistent,” she said. “I kept going back to them and saying ‘No, I have a clear plan, and this is the only way I’m going to accomplish it.’”
In addition to the standard application process, Ohlson said she cold emailed “every single” professor who taught a course related to the major requesting that they write a letter in her support. She ultimately submitted seven faculty letters to the committee that endorsed the merit of her major.
Ohlson pointed to a couple factors that made her application successful: The classes she proposed were thematically similar, and nearly every class in her proposal already existed and was offered relatively frequently, meaning she would be able to finish her requirements on time.
“The courses in my major spanned seven different departments, but there was still a very clear line through them,” Ohlson said. “The individualized major was the only way to bring them together cohesively.”
Cinema and Media Studies professor Peter Decherney, who was one of Ohlson’s two advisors, described his experience advising her as “very, very easy.”
"I actually always love having students who are interested in things outside of my field, and it's a way for me to learn more about the curriculum as well," Decherney said.
Decherney said that Ohlson encountered some challenges with her individualized major, including adjusting the plan when course offerings inevitably changed — which he said is a common challenge in many majors — and building the community that exists within a traditional department.
When it came time for Ohlson to write her thesis, Decherney helped Ohlson join the media studies cohort of students writing theses, allowing her to derive community and support from her peers throughout the process.
Despite these benefits, Decherney views Ohlson’s situation as unique and believes that the rigorous application process is necessary.
“It might be that the thing they want is out there, but it’s just hard to find," he said. "Once they go through that process and still can’t find what they want, it does make sense for there to be an individualized major.”
Several students in the College have expressed frustration with the lack of flexibility offered by the College curriculum and are seeking more access to opportunities like the individualized major.
College and Engineering junior Terhi Nurminen said that her interest in applied mathematics developed throughout her freshman year, but there was no outlet for her to pursue this interest in the Math department.
As a result, she ended up choosing a major in cognitive science and a second major in Systems Engineering. She said she has “little time and energy” for extracurriculars and other activities outside of her classwork and wishes her advisor had presented the individualized major to her as a viable option, which she would have explored.
“I was basically just looking at the different majors to see which one would allow me to take the math-based courses that I want,” she said.
College junior Angel Ortiz, who is double majoring in history and political science with a minor in legal studies and history, said that the overlap between his disciplines and the flexibility offered by the history major contributed to his smooth experience pursuing multiple majors and exploring the different fields he might be interested in studying.
"[I]f there wasn’t significant overlap in the programs, I’d have to take six classes most semesters to get it done. It just wouldn’t be manageable or realistic," he said.
Other students seeking out flexibility have done so through independent concentrations within their set majors. Sophomore Sophia Garcia, who is studying cognitive science, took on an independent concentration in behavioral economics to align with her interest in international business.
“I love that I’m getting lots of freedom and wiggle room, and the cross-school experience with my classes at Wharton has been really cool,” she said.
Nonetheless, Garcia and the other students all emphasized their frustration with the large number of general education requirements included in the College curriculum.
Ortiz described Penn's labeling of general education requirements as “arbitrary,” calling it "ridiculous" that none of his political science classes have counted for his humanities and social sciences requirement.
Other students feel that Penn's requirements prohibit them from fully pursuing their interests.
“I feel confined by gen-eds,” Garcia said. “There are so many classes that I’d love to take because I’m interested, but I end up having to choose something that will triple count for requirements because it’s more practical.”
For Ohlson, the benefits of the flexible, interdisciplinary approach of the individualized major continue to benefit her, even five years after her graduation from Penn. She now works as a creative executive for the global entertainment company 3BLACKDOT and continues to approach work from the same perspective that she did her major.
Despite the extensive approval process and paucity of students who have completed an individualized major in recent years, Ureña said that students who are interested can still discuss the major with advisors and submit a proposal. She said she was confident that students can find trajectories that suit their needs.
“Our goal is to help students find a rewarding academic path, and that involves helping students explore all of the incredible options available in the College,” she said.