Kevin Zish ’11 has more than a simple love of learning. He has a passion for learning about learning—be it the scientific aspects (how the brain functions, and what happens when our neurotransmitters are firing), the theoretical aspects (why we think the way we do, and what the great thinkers have said about the topic), or even the futuristic aspects (how to take what we know about knowledge acquisition and manipulate it through computation).
As Zish himself puts it, “I want to know as much about the brain as TCNJ can teach me, and from as many perspectives as possible.”
That is why he is switching his major from Open Options/Business to Cognitive Science. But you won’t find Cognitive Science among the “official” majors listed in TCNJ’s Undergraduate Bulletin. Zish is designing the major himself, carefully researching and selecting courses that will help him “understand cognition in a more applicable sense,” he says.
Zish is one of a handful of TCNJ students taking advantage of the College’s Self-Designed Major Program. “This program is for very strong students who want to take the initiative to put together a major in some area that the College can deliver on, but that it has no official degree program in,” explained Richard Kamber, professor of philosophy and co-director of the Self-Design Major Program.
“Our aim was to create something for the exceptionally self-motivated student,” Kamber said of the program that he co-directs with Steve Klug, professor of biology. “The level of work and the specifications of each degree are such that the program is for students who are strong even by TCNJ’s high standards. It’s an honors-level program, although not restricted to students in TCNJ’s Honors Program,” Kamber said.
To be eligible, students must have at least a 3.0 GPA and apply before the beginning of their junior year. Students must write a proposal that includes a justification statement, lists the goals of their proposed majors, and outlines the courses they plan to take as part of their programs of study. The minimum number of classes a student can take is 12, and at least half must be 300- and 400-level classes.
Shaum Kabadi ’07 overshot that minimum by a bit: his self-designed major—the first at TCNJ—was in Biochemistry and required him to take 22 classes. “In hindsight, that was probably a few more than I needed,” he says now with a laugh.
Kabadi is currently finishing his Master of Public Health degree at UMDNJ. He said the Self-Designed Major Program proved to be the perfect solution when he changed career plans early in his undergraduate days.
“I was leaning toward a career in medicine from very early on,” he explains. He enrolled at TCNJ as a Biology major, figuring he would one day go to medical school. At some point, he says, he became uncertain about those plans, and realized his interests lay in epidemiology research, not in practicing medicine. He designed the Biochemistry major knowing that the courses he took would “come in handy” as an epidemiologist.
Kabadi is planning to get his PhD in epidemiology research after finishing at UMDNJ. He says he has not ruled out going for a combined MD/Phd but feels, either way, the Biochemistry degree gave him the knowledge base he needs regardless of the path he chooses.
Early in the application process, students proposing self-designed majors must secure faculty advisers. “The advisers are key, as they have the responsibility of working with the students,” Kamber said.
Once a student’s proposal is complete, it goes before the Self-Designed Major Committee for approval. The committee examines each proposal closely and then schedules interviews with the students. “The committee can be quite tough, and has been very rigorous in terms of its demands and expectations,” Kamber explained.
Megan Van Der Stad ’10 says she was ecstatic when she was told the committee had approved her self-designed major in Italian Studies: she has wanted to study the language ever since her childhood days spent listening to her grandmother speak Italian. She started at the College with a minor in Italian (the only program TCNJ offered), but soon decided she wanted “to dedicate more time to learning this beautiful language.” With her adviser’s help she proposed the bachelor’s degree–granting major in Italian Studies.
Her program consists mostly of language courses, although there is also a heavy concentration of culture and history. She is studying this semester in Siena, Italy—an experience that is giving her a heavy dose of all three.
“I’m taking five courses, all of which are taught in Italian. I am in class with people from all over the world, and our common language is Italian,” she wrote via e-mail. “I am surrounded by medieval architecture and museums filled with art that dates back to the times of the Etruscans and up to the middle ages. It is extraordinary!”
Van Der Stad is double majoring in communication studies, a program that requires her to complete 12 separate courses in order to earn a degree. She has no second thoughts about her decision, though. “I am so happy I decided to do the double major in Italian Studies, because I feel it makes my communications degree unique,” she said.
Pooja Shah ’09 is another student whose self-designed program is her second major. Shah is working toward dual degrees in psychology and film and television studies, the latter of which she self designed. Like Kabadi, Shah originally thought medical school was in her future. But after seeing the movie Good Will Hunting, in which Robin Williams plays a psychologist who helps Matt Damon’s character overcome a troubled childhood, Shah became fascinated by the “interaction between the psychologist and patient.” She decided that was what she wanted to do, and enrolled in the psychology program at TCNJ.
But when she arrived on campus she had “an epiphany,” she says. What really interested her about the film were the “behind-the-scenes” goings-on. “I wanted to know what it took to produce a film like that, so I designed a major in Film and Television Production,” she explains.
Her self-designed program requires 15 courses from the communication studies department, the interactive multimedia program—even an Asian film studies course offered through the modern languages department. She also completed an internship with MTV networks, an experience for which she earned credits toward her Film and Television Studies degree.
Shah says she is glad she kept the psychology major for a couple of reasons. “It has helped me with character development when making films, and since my degree is in Industrial/Organization Psychology, I’m sure it will also help when I’m seeking employment,” she says.
But her dream job lies in film editing, and she is hoping to find employment in that field. “I’m a creative person, and I want a job where I get to let that creative side shine.”
Before graduating, students who have self-designed a major must also complete a senior capstone project (for example, writing and defending a thesis, or submitting a final creative project). The idea is that the project will unify the course of study the student has completed. Although his capstone project is two years off, Zish has been giving it a lot of thought lately. It is the final piece of information he needs to supply before submitting his proposal for a major in Cognitive Science.
“The amount of planning I’ve had to do for this self-designed major has been extreme,” Zish says. He has pored over pages and pages of course descriptions, double-checking them against class schedules for the coming years, all in an effort to ensure that every course he needs to take will be offered. He has two faculty advisers assisting him now, and the e-mails back and forth over the past month or so have been non-stop. “Sometimes it’s like I’m on instant messenger with them,” he jokes.
“Planning this major has stolen my life for the last three and half semesters, but I’ve loved doing the work to put this proposal together,” he says. Looking down at the course sequence he is proposing for himself—which includes such classes as Eukaryotic Cell Biology, Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Neuroscience, Discrete Structures of Computer Science, and Biopsychology—he laughs.
“Interestingly enough, I came to TCNJ and said to myself, ‘No computers, and no science.’ Now I’m doing both. But it’s going to be a fun experiment to see if I can get this all done in the four semesters I have left at TCNJ.”