Students create custom majors to focus their education on specific passions

Julie Stewart, the director of Westminster College’s customized major program, and Alex Mager meet in Foster Hall to discuss the requirements for his customized major. Mager is a senior who created a unique program that combines management and film production. Photo by Dariia Miroshnikova.

Julie Stewart, the director of Westminster College’s customized major program, and Alex Mager meet in Foster Hall to discuss the requirements for his customized major. Mager is a senior who created a unique program that combines management and film production. Photo by Dariia Miroshnikova.

Westminster College students who create customized majors said they chose to do so because they can handpick their classes and combine multiple disciplines into one unique degree focused on their passions and interests.

The program allows students the creativity to build a custom degree based on their various intellectual or academic interests and professional goals, said Julie Stewart, the director of Westminster's customized major program.

Sophomore Sabi Lowder said she enjoys interdisciplinary classes, so she created her own major called “multicultural communications,” which focuses on global studies and communication.

“I feel like I get to be more exploratory with myself,” she said. “Not being tied to that structure of having to follow classes that are already preselected for me is really nice. It opens up tons of different professors that I can know and a ton of different opinions and ideas that I get to see instead of staying within one department."

The customized major option has been in Westminster's course catalog since the 1970s and used to be called "the contract major." The program was rarely used by students until Lance Newman, the current dean of arts and sciences, revitalized it in 2010. Since then, approximately 43 students have graduated with a customized major in the past seven years because of his work.

Mariah McCoy, a junior at Westminster, created a major called "global environmental justice," which incorporates global studies and environmental studies courses.

“I majored in 'indecision' because I chose the major that didn’t force me to decide between the traditional disciplines,” McCoy said. “I majored in deciding to do something different and not actually pick one passion and instead [in] trying to incorporate them all.”

Stewart is currently advising approximately 35 customized major students who explore and combine a variety of disciplines. She said some of her students tie together nursing classes and dance while others take a series of classes that revolve around looking at a certain time period from different perspectives.

“Usually I meet with students and they tell me what they want to do and then I help them identify different advisors—specialists in the fields they are interested in,” Stewart said. “Then, they go to their faculty and put together a set of courses they are going to take. So it’s truly a very collaborative kind of process.”

Students who graduate with a customized major engage in a range of post-graduation activities, Stewart said. They go to graduate school, take jobs in the for-profit and non-profit sectors and start their own businesses.

Olivia Marks graduated with a degree from Westminster in positive integrative wellness in 2016. Her customized major tied together nutrition, yoga, meditation, communication and business classes.

Marks said the process of creating her own major taught her time management skills, self-motivation and to believe in her vision—all of which she said she will continue to apply throughout her life. After graduating from Westminster, Marks started an after-school program for teens and is currently teaching yoga.

Creating a customized major requires students to be extra assertive, Stewart said. They need to be flexible and have to dedicate a lot of time to schedule regular meetings to talk to different professors and do research to choose classes necessary for their custom programs.

“Every class I’m picking is me trying to push myself,” Lowder said. “It puts a lot of responsibility on me to figure out what I’m going to do and why I’m going to do it. I hold so much value to those classes because I’m picking this and I’m responsible for it.”

Felix Mantz, who created a major called "critical global studies," said his custom major allows him to pick professors he wants to work with through a combination of global studies and political science courses.

“I wanted to make sure I take classes with people that align with my ideology; critical people that help me develop my arguments based on their critical and more radical knowledge,” he said.

McCoy, who’s been majoring in her customized field for two years, said this option is for “people who are very intently focused on a certain thing.” For her, she said she knew environmental justice was the field she wanted to study.

“This is the field I want and I want it now,” she said. “So if you’ve got that intense focus and you just really can’t let it go and all of your other essays and classes link back to it somehow, you might as well just custom.”

Despite the effort and time-consuming process required to create a custom major, these students said it has been a great opportunity to focus their education around their passions.

“The intent is to create that degree plan so that [students] can meet their specific goals,” Stewart said. “For those students who have a really specific sense of what they want to do, [a customized major] can be a great option.”