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Students Customize Degrees to Pursue Their Passions

Combining Disciplines Enriches Their Education, Students Say

Scene from Memory Box being performed by Flying Orb
Chummeng Soun, center, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Liberal Arts degree with concentrations in Asian studies and digital media, dances with Flying Orb.

By Katharine Webster

Before the Cambodian master dancers who survived the Khmer Rouge pass away, Chummeng Soun wants to reconstruct their knowledge of the traditional Apsara dances and capture them on film.

In support of this work, Soun is pursuing a Bachelor of Liberal Arts (B.L.A.) with concentrations in Asian studies and digital media, as well as a minor in graphic design.

Soun, who was born in Cambodia and is a dancer with Angkor Dance Troupe and Flying Orb, says the ability to customize his degree by combining disciplines has been invaluable.

"That's where my passion lies – in filmmaking and storytelling about my heritage,” he says.

Soun’s personalized degree pathway is part of a growing trend on campus and in higher education: taking a project-based approach that combines different fields of study to address social issues and challenges, says Ashleigh Hillier, an associate professor of psychology.

“So much really interesting work is going on among faculty and students in these interdisciplinary programs,” Hillier says. “More broadly, there’s a greater recognition of the importance of multiple perspectives in tackling problems and answering questions.”

The College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences offers more than a dozen interdisciplinary minors, including peace and conflict studies, American studies -- both can also be majors -- legal studies, gender studies, labor studies, medieval and Renaissance studies, digital media, environment and society, disability studies, film studies, and technology, society and human values

Several minors – Asian, Arabic, Italian, German, Latin American and Portuguese studies – combine language and humanities classes. Art history is also offered as a minor.

Some students add one or more minors to their majors to specialize or prepare for a particular career. For example, many political science and criminal justice majors add legal studies because they plan to pursue careers as lawyers or in law enforcement. 

Others, like Soun, combine two concentrations to create a unique degree pathway through the B.L.A. program. Students seeking a B.L.A. must also take an interdisciplinary course, Introduction to Liberal Studies, and complete a capstone.

Teresa Santana's "Reina Hispana de la Naturaleza" Photo by Teresa Santana
Teresa Santana, an art major with a minor in art history, discussed her self-portrait, "Reina Hispana de la Naturaleza," at an interdisciplinary studies conference.
Hillier coordinates the disability studies minor, which draws a lot of psychology and health sciences students. The core curriculum includes psychology and sociology classes, an English class, Disability in Literature, and a legal studies class on the rights of people with disabilities. Electives include classes in history, philosophy, political science and criminal justice, along with a couple of courses in the College of Health Sciences.

“We’re trying to answer the question of how to advocate for greater understanding of people with differing abilities and how they navigate their world,” Hillier says.

Hillier recently helped organize a daylong conference, “Crossing Borders,” that showcased interdisciplinary projects and research by faculty and students. 

Two students in the art history minor – history major Lexi Mason and French major Caroline Bain – showed how they collaborated with an engineering student to update some interactive exhibits at the Lowell National Historical Park for a class, Museum Issues, taught by art history lecturer Jennifer Cadero-Gillette.

The three figured out how to make the personal belongings in a mill girl’s trunk “talk” to museumgoers when handled, using quotes from the mill girl’s letters. They also created an instructional video and new written directions for various textile manufacturing machines that school-age visitors can try, from a drawing-in machine to a power loom.

“We watched a class of fourth-graders visit the exhibit and try out the machines in pairs,” Bain says. “The boys were really interested in figuring out how to weave on the loom. One boy even said he wanted to do it all day.”

Also at the conference, Wandy Polo, who graduated in December, talked about her decision to switch from psychology to the B.L.A. program. 

At first, the B.L.A. was simply a vehicle for Polo, a transfer student, to pursue two separate courses of study that interested her: psychology and theatre arts. Then she began learning about all the possible ways she could combine the two fields, and now she’s looking at graduate programs that would teach her to use drama as a therapeutic tool.

“This was perfect for me,” she says. “Now I’m considering psychodrama as a career.”