During Admissions Events, one of the topics that always arises is Wheaton’s array of more than 40 majors and 50 minors. Among those is the option to have an Independent major, in which students work with various faculty members in order to structure a major that combines courses from two or more departments.
Yet despite Wheaton’s advertisement of the ability to create an independent major, it is hard to do. Even those who succeed often fail to receive much recognition.
Jillian Valerio ’17 is an independent major in Historical Linguistics with a focus on “dead languages” and semantics. Entering Wheaton, Valerio knew she was interested in language, but hadn’t thought about Linguistics. After speaking to Professor of English Michael Drout, she knew that Linguistics was for her.
One of the requirements for independent majors is to have two advisors, and Valerio’s are from the English and Computer Science departments. She says that she is “trying to encompass as many aspects of linguistics” as possible. Encouraged by Professor Drout to have more exposure to the computational side of linguistics, Valerio isn’t thrilled with some of the classes she’s taking for her major.
“Being an Independent major doesn’t mean you get exactly what you want … it’s not just taking classes that you like but classes that are helpful to you,” she says.
Valerio, who started planning her major in the Fall of her freshman year, had some original pushback on her major since some thought Historical Linguistics was too specific for an undergraduate degree.
Nykia Leach ’17 had similar pushback. She was told that Public Health was too specific of a major — not for an undergraduate degree, but simply for a Liberal Arts college.
Leach came to Wheaton with the intent of being an independent major. She had a backup plan of Biology, but wanted to be well rounded in the medical field. After speaking with her FYS advisor, Leach was directed to Associate Professor of Psychology Michael Berg, who helped design Wheaton’s Public Health minor. Berg eventually became one of Leach’s advisors, along with Associate Professor of Anthropology Gabriela Torres. Within half an hour of their first meeting, Leach had convinced Torres to agree to advising her Public Health major. Leach comments, “I knew no one was going to listen to me unless I had something really tangible and solid.”
Before officially talking to anyone about the major, Leach had designed her Major Sheet and had about sixteen classes she thought would work. Last year, when Leach initially emailed Alex Vazquez, then the dean of advising, expressing interest in a Public Health major, he said it wasn’t possible. Determined, Leach requested to meet with him, regardless of his initial reaction. As with Professor Torres, by the end of their first meeting, Leach convinced Vazquez that her major was, in fact, possible.
Although Leach enjoys being in classes with a range of people due to the interdisciplinary aspects of her major, she explains that it would be helpful to have the ability to connect with the other independent majors, and especially to have a senior seminar for them.
The independent major adds a lot to the Wheaton community academically, yet Leach points out it is the only major to not have its own page on the Wheaton website. On the individual major pages, people can see what students are up to, and what alumnae/i are doing with their majors. By not having a page for Independent majors, they begin to fall through the cracks, Leach thinks. This is especially unfortunate because of the substantial work required to make their majors happen.
Both Valerio and Leach are thankful for their independent majors, but both agree there is still work to be done to secure future success and recognition within the program.