Going it alone

    Many students at UCSD have trouble coming up with a major — something that suits their interests and career goals, and will allow them to get out in four years. That’s no surprise; choosing a major is one of the biggest decisions college students have to make. It is also arguably the most difficult one.

    Pat Leung

    As a result, some strike out on their own and pursue an individual studies major. This is an option that is available at Revelle, John Muir, Thurgood Marshall, Earl Warren and Eleanor Roosevelt colleges. Currently, Sixth College is developing major options for students, which could include individual studies programs.

    This program allows students to design courses of study in majors not formally recognized or offered at UCSD, but conforming to standards established by the colleges and by the Academic Senate. Academic advisers suggest that these plans be made by the end of the spring quarter of freshman year.

    Students must start a rigorous process by submitting a proposal, which includes a statement about the purpose of the major, its relationship to the student’s goals, and the reasons the program cannot be satisfied by an established major. They must also turn in a statement of support from a faculty sponsor, a list of prerequisite courses, and a proposed curriculum with a list of the intended course of study.

    The mentor plays an important role in the student’s education, giving him advice and input along the way. Rather than being a part of an established department such as history or biology, the students’ colleges become their departments. Individual studies majors are usually a combination of several different majors offered at UCSD.

    The criteria for declaring an individual studies major may differ by college. The major program is required to include at least 12 four-unit, upper-division courses from at least two academic departments. There is also a grade-point-average requirement of 3.0 or higher that varies by college.

    “”Students who choose this option are usually high-achieving and self-directed learners,”” says Catherine Joseph, dean of advising at Warren and the current chair of the Sixth College Deans of Advising.

    However appealing this may seem, this is an option pursued by very few students.

    “”Most of the time, students feel that this is not in their best interest, since they feel that they would rather be affiliated with one of the university’s nationally ranked departments,”” said Nancy Friedlander, dean of academic advising at Roosevelt.

    A total of 43 students chose to declare an individual studies major in the last four years. Among that group, nine are graduating this year, and 15 students declared a second major in the fields of history, music, biology, economics or Third World studies.

    Ben Shapiro, a Warren senior, is one of the few students who has chosen to complete an individual studies major. His major, symbolic systems, combines classes in computer science, cognitive science, philosophy and psychology.

    Most of his work is geared toward the study of human-computer interaction. This major is similar to programs offered at Stanford, M.I.T. and Carnegie Mellon.

    “”I think the individual studies major is great,”” Shapiro said. “”I am a lot happier this way than with another major.””

    He credits his faculty adviser, Richard K. Belew of the computer science department, with his success.

    “”There is no way I would have been able to pull it off without his advice,”” he said.

    Shapiro is interested in issues relating to the human-computer interface, and in how people manipulate formal systems such as language and mathematics.

    He noted that most computer science undergraduate programs do not pay enough attention to computer interfaces. He believes that the best way to improve interfaces is to understand how people interact with the world.

    Preferring a hands-on approach to understanding these issues, he has participated in the European Union’s Playground Project. He also spent a summer at the University of London, Institute of Education helping to develop an interactive programming environment for children.

    The individual studies program is perfect for him, but it isn’t a piece of cake.

    “”It requires a lot of foresight,”” he said.

    At Eleanor Roosevelt College, students have usually created majors that focused on a particular region of the world. In the past, these majors have included both Latin American and Japanese studies. Both of these later became official majors at UCSD. Some students also created majors in environmental systems before there was an environmental studies major.

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