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Independent Majors, Independent Minds

By Alison McGaughey

Senior Felicia Johnson can pinpoint the reason she decided on her career interest. While she was growing up in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, two of her cousins were shot and killed, and their cases are still unsolved.

 "I grew up seeing violence and crime, and I've always had an interest in helping others and trying to find some justice," Johnson says.

After starting to study psychology at Knox, she decided she wanted to pursue a major that focused more directly on her interests in criminal behavior. She considered transferring to a college or university that offered a major in criminal justice. But she didn't want to leave behind the relationships she'd developed at Knox.

So, she created her own curriculum in criminal justice.

Johnson (pictured above with her advisor, Sandra King Shumaker '95) is just one of 13 current Knox students pursuing an independent major, and one of about 50 students who have designed their own majors since 2000. In 2001, the faculty created independent minors, as well.

According to Knox College Registrar Kevin Hastings, the College has graduated 182 students with independent majors since 1968. "In the past 35 years, we've had almost 200 students attempt independent majors, and 98 percent completed their degrees, which is a higher retention rate than for the college as a whole," says Lawrence B. Breitborde, dean of the College. "Independent majors and minors are the best example of how students can shape their own education in ways that connect their personal interests and aspirations to Knox's tradition of liberal learning."

Paving their own ways
When Johnson decided to create an independent major, she had to first develop a proposal that argued for the appropriateness of her field of study within the liberal arts. Students wanting to pursue an independent major must also defend the relevance of their proposed set of course requirements and explain the personal or professional relevance of their proposed major. The faculty Curriculum Committee then evaluates and either denies or approves these proposals. According to Breitborde, it is due to the rigor of the process that only about half-a-dozen students per year come forward with proposals.

Students completing independent majors still have to satisfy the general education requirements of the College, which include foundations in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences; key competencies (in writing, speaking, quantitative literacy, language, information literacy and informed use of technology, and diversity); and experiential learning. 

"Students with independent majors take seriously Knox's historic commitment that a liberal education is the best education for any career," says Breitborde. "Independent majors go a step further and design pathways that connect their liberal arts education to a broader range of careers that reflect the flexibility and changing professions of today's world."

Political Journalism
While students like Johnson have decided to pursue an independent major because the College does not offer a major in a specific area, others have decided to form a new major that builds upon current programs.

Chicago native Bill Mayeroff (pictured at right interviewing a fellow student in the Gizmo), a junior, came to Knox to study theatre. After working as a staff writer for The Knox Student, however, Mayeroff developed a strong interest in journalism. He became editor of the arts and entertainment section of the paper and later worked as a student staffer at The Register-Mail in Galesburg. He took the courses in Knox's new journalism program—which offers a minor but not a major—and decided he wanted to focus his education on journalism.

"I liked seeing my name on paper," says Mayeroff. "I knew there wasn't a journalism major here, which always kind of surprised me. So I knew that if I wanted to study journalism in any capacity outside of the minor, I would either have to leave or create my own major."

Mayeroff knew from his reporting experience that he was most interested in covering political topics. So he developed a major in political journalism, which combines classes in the journalism program with courses in political science, as well as economics.

Like Felicia Johnson, Mayeroff considered transferring to another college or university. Instead, he used the research he had conducted on programs at other colleges and universities—such as which classes were required at journalism schools—to model his own major at Knox.

Conservation Biology
Similarly, Mary Tibbets, a senior from Houston, Texas, created a major that combines courses from two of Knox's existing programs.

Tibbets knew since childhood that she was interested in finding solutions to problems that plague the environment. But she didn't want to follow a traditional science track that would require lots of time in labs, which she describes as "stifling." After participating in an off-campus study program in Tanzania, where she conducted field research and studied ecology, she realized she wanted to continue on a similar academic path.

"I've always been a person who'd rather be outdoors," she says. "I wanted to tailor my major to what I was interested in, and that was mainly field research. I'm not interested in going into medicine or virology or anything like that, so I felt like the traditional major might require a lot of classes in things I wasn't truly interested in."

So she developed a major around courses that did spark her interest, which were in both biology and environmental science. She says having a major that culls from the two programs has served as a good alternative to double majoring.

"I think double majoring would've left less time for taking classes outside the majors," she said. "With this, I have been able to take an introductory literature course and classes in poetry and film."

Criminal Justice
Since declaring an independent major in criminal justice, Felicia Johnson has taken courses in political science; philosophy courses on ethics; anthropology and sociology classes on society and race; and psychology courses that explore topics relating to mental illness.

"I'm studying the same things I would be at a school with a criminal justice major," she says.

Since declaring her major, Johnson has completed two internships, one with the Chicago Police Headquarters and one with local law enforcement in Galesburg. In the former, she worked with two detectives in the homicide division of the crime analysis unit, processing information relating to homicides and police shootings. In Galesburg, she did "ride-alongs" with police officers on the second shift, observing police functions from handling domestic violence calls to checking on suspicious vehicles to suicide calls. She is now working on a senior project on minority representation in the juvenile justice system. Her career goal is to work in criminal investigations as a homicide detective or work in some way with juvenile offenders

 "What kept me here were the friends I've made, the faculty, and the staff, especially in the EDP [Educational Development Program]," she says. "I hope others at Knox will follow in my footsteps."