Rafting Towards New Major’s
“Mom, I’ve decided to major in adventure sports.” Not words every mother wants to hear. We’re talking mountain biking. Scuba diving. Spelunking. It’s news to test a parent’s open-mindedness.
Exotic or highly specialized majors carry the baggage of the unfamiliar — negative assumptions come easy. But parents who fret about a child’s unusual or unique study program might find comfort in a few points.
First, research shows that a student’s choice of major doesn’t have a significant bearing on their career path (see related story, pg. 24).
Second, many higher education experts agree exotic major programs can bear hallmarks of quality: committed teachers, high student demand, exciting internship or service learning opportunities.
Last, these unfamiliar programs are sometimes on the leading edge of curriculum development.
Sometimes highly specialized course programs can leave students with too few career options. And experts caution that after the current “cool major” isn’t cool with employers any more, students will be left in the dust with few transferable skills.
Still, many forge ahead into majors that parents, their professors and college administrators would never have dreamed of.
A Program for Every Interest
Some of the curricular surprises that students can spring on family and friends include trade- or industry-specific programs such as auto restoration, racetrack management, cemetery management and furniture making.
Other, more academic degree programs, such as ecotourism, conflict management or human rights, are part of larger responses to social or world problems. Still other programs reflect their diverse communities. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, for example, offers a program in Puerto Rican studies.
Many new programs are actually old ones repackaged, either to appeal to students’ changing sensibilities and priorities, or to reflect changing employer needs, says Marva Gumbs, director of career services at George Washington University.
For example, institutions lately have been reshaping business and international affairs curricula to address emerging needs of employers in such areas as cross-cultural communication.
“It’s no different than eons ago when colleges decided to do international business where previously there was only domestic business,” she says.
But some programs are unique. Garrett Community College in Western Maryland developed its two-year adventure sports program in cooperation with nearby Frostburg State University. Founded by physics instructor and adventure-sports enthusiast Mike Logsdon, the program takes advantage of the college’s proximity to Appalachian wilderness to teach students backpacking, bobsledding, canoeing and kayaking in flatwater and whitewater, fly-fishing, hiking, snowboarding, and other sports.
It is a point of pride for the college.
“We started out with one or two students. Now we’re the largest major in the college,” with about 90 students enrolled, says program assistant Sharon Elsey-Wynn.
University students have transferred in, and professors have taken courses or even signed up for the degree program, she says. Students come from all over the country and a few Canadian students have enrolled.
The program has its own rigors, with courses that teach how to survive alone in the wild, and specialty courses such as Wilderness First Aid. It also requires regular general education classes in English, math and science.
Theory courses include Adventure Programming for Disabled Individuals, Leadership and Group Dynamics and program management.
“I think it’s a little bit harder than other programs,” Elsey-Wynn says. “On weekends, students have to go out in the field, and during the week they’re doing class work.”
The associate’s degree can lead to Frostburg’s four-year degree in recreation, or a master’s in park and recreation resource management. Some students have their eye on an education degree. Others go into business or work as adventure sports guides.
Struggling for Acceptance
Often, specialty programs are the vision of passionate people who bring commitment and vitality to the endeavor.
When Mark Ensalaco, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, wanted to start a human rights program, he lobbied everyone he could think of — students, faculty members, administrators, trustees and people in the field of human rights. His efforts were fruitful, but eventually hit roadblocks.
“The administration has been supportive,” he says, but during the program’s incubation “there came a time of bureaucratic impasse.”
Students had their own investment in the project, however, and according to Ensalaco, saved the day. One got herself elected as a student rep to the Academic Affairs committee, specifically to help win support for the new program. Another student wrote an effective editorial which proved critical, he says.
The program — technically a major in international studies with a concentration in human rights — was formally instituted in December 1998. Today it has seven declared majors and 10 to 15 minors. It has three focuses; teaching, research and programming events such as an upcoming symposium on the rights of the child or a new award for distinguished human rights work.
Supporting the work is an interdisciplinary committee of 12 faculty members, who also develop human rights-related courses in their disciplines.
“We really think we can make a difference,” Ensalaco says.
When specialty programs rise out of a surrounding community’s needs, they are apt to offer students relevant, real-world learning opportunities. At the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, for example, students in the undergraduate certificate program in dispute resolution help mediate discussions between school children and cops in Harlem and other parts of New York. There may be opportunities ahead to facilitate dialogue about the Amadou Diallo shooting.
The program requires students to take an overview course, a lab that builds mediation skills and an internship in which they apply the skills. They may also take liberal arts courses relevant to conflict and its resolution.
The program gives students skills they can apply every day — in their homes, work places and communities, says its director, Maria Volpe.
“They learn the art of being patient and persuasive, of identifying issues and being able to process concerns, being creative and coming up with solutions,” she says. “They [learn] this is not a perfect world, they can’t be great each time, but when a trigger makes them revert, they can say ‘Oops, I goofed.’ “
The field of conflict resolution is still growing but is not brand new. John Jay’s program has been around since 1981. Still, people are unfamiliar with it.
“I get it all the time,” Volpe says. “I’ll say ‘conflict resolution,’ and people will say, ‘What’s that?’ You just have to be ready to explain a lot more than if you say, ‘I’m a history major.’ “
Cross-Over Skills are Valuable
This lack of awareness can be a downside in the job marketplace. Conflict/dispute resolution, for instance, hasn’t yet worked its way into mainstream consciousness as a job category — graduates are hard-pressed to find a surplus of “mediator” listings in the want ads.
This means students have to be creative in their job searches, seeking positions in which they can apply the skills — human resources rep, community affairs specialist or outreach developer.
The same goes for adventure sports, says Elsey-Wynn.
“Some students, before they come, they want to know, ‘Am I going to be able to make a career of this? I want to get married and have a family,'” she says. “And parents ask, too. I tell them, ‘It’s up to you. If you apply yourselves, you’re going to do well.'”
Elsey-Wynn says that the program’s success is demonstrated by the fact that some graduates have applied their training to work in guiding, retail, education or working in therapeutic settings.
Transferable skills are valuable with any major, but are especially important in a specialized course of study. This is even true for students with business aspirations, because market, technological and workplace changes are driving business in new directions.
Today’s employers often care less about specialized training and more about people skills and resourcefulness, says Laurence Smith, vice president for marketing and student affairs at Eastern Michigan University.
“[Employers] want people who know how to take risks, understand technology, understand and know how to make changes,” he says. “They want people who have a global focus and perspective and collaboration skills that work across cultures and within cultures. And they want people who have a strong inner-value core so they have predictability in terms of how they’re going to behave.”
Keeping an Eye on the Future
At Farleigh-Dickinson University, the Rothman Institute offers an undergraduate degree in entrepreneurial studies. It not only exposes students to the lives and ways of entrepreneurs, it combines traditional business specialties such as marketing, accounting etc. It’s partly a way to give young entrepreneurs — particularly computer whizzes with e-business ambitions — some training, says director Leo J. Rogers.
The school also requires every business student to take a course in entrepreneurship. Even if students don’t go into business for themselves, they need entrepreneurial know-how, because that’s what corporations today want and that’s what they reward, Rogers says. More and more corporations are having employees work in small units and encouraging them take business risks, because they’re competing against smaller firms that have flexibility, he says.
“We need to get students out of the mindset that they’re going to graduate with a degree, go off to a training program in a major corporation, work their way up and retire with a gold watch,” Rogers says. “That’s not the paradigm anymore. So we want them to be exposed to different kinds of thinking.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com