It didn’t take Mark Kresowik long to figure out that he wanted a one-of-a-kind major.
He entered The University of Iowa in 2002 as a biochemistry major, but a series of experiences both in and out of the classroom, including working in a hospital on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia and getting involved with Engineers for a Sustainable World, an organization for students and professionals interested in sustainability, led him to expand his studies.
“I wanted to focus on the intersection between environment and health, but also include strong components of policy, engineering, and law to deal with social systems,” Kresowik says.
So he went straight to the Interdepartmental Studies Program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to create an individualized plan of study. The program allows students to design their own majors in an interdisciplinary area that doesn’t exist as an academic department at the University.
For Kresowik, that major was sustainable systems, and it provided the perfect foundation for his current job in Washington, D.C., as a corporate accountability representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
“Sometimes people give me funny looks when I say I designed my own major. They think that’s for people who don’t know what they’re doing,” says Kresowik, a former UI student body president who graduated in May 2006. “But then I explain to them how much work it was to design my plan of study, and how well it prepared me for the job I do today, and there’s no doubt that it was the right decision for me.”
The number of students graduating from The University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts in interdepartmental studies each year is growing, says coordinator David Gould. The program has been in existence at Iowa since the mid-1980s, but as interest in interdisciplinary studies grows, so does the number of students interested in creating their own major. Gould estimates that 14 to 20 new students will be admitted to the program this academic year.
“I see a lot of students who are interested in putting together unique ideas from what would seem to be very different areas of study,” Gould says. “They don’t want to be constrained to one department, and with this program, they can take their passions and really create a major that’s one of a kind.”
Even just creating the plan of study for that one-of-a-kind major, though, takes work. So the program is best for students who are focused, disciplined, and self-motivated, Gould says.
“Students can’t just declare this major,” Gould explains. “They really have to take an active role in understanding how the components of their plan come together. They need to be able to articulate why their plan of study is worthwhile and what course work they need to get them where they want to go.”
In the last few years, Iowa students have used this plan to pursue fields like comprehensive cancer studies, music entrepreneurship, and persuasive legal theory. Plans that combine business classes with a passion for the arts or some other area have been especially popular.
Students work with Gould and a faculty advisor to draft a plan of study that includes a list of advanced-level courses that make up the core of the plan, and a narrative that explains how and why those courses constitute a focused academic program. Because students must work closely with faculty to develop their plans of study, it’s easy to develop lasting relationships with their academic mentors. That not only has a big impact on their university experience, it helps when applying for graduate school.
The plans are then submitted to a seven-member faculty advisory committee for approval, and Gould continues to work with students throughout the remainder of their years at Iowa to help them stay on track to graduate on time.
“I think that, at a minimum, students who want to and are able to create their own major and graduate with it become much happier students, happier alumni,” Gould says. “This major allows students to follow their passions and create something and use it as an opportunity to position themselves for the next step. And it really gives them an advantage in the professional world. Creative growth is driven by people who can take puzzle pieces and put them together in different combinations. That’s exactly what people who pursue individualized plans are doing.”
by Anne Kapler