Tiffani Kennedy: How I Chose My Interdisciplinary Major (Major Exploration Series)

Career Administrator

This blog post is part of the Major Exploration Series featuring more posts that will be published throughout the months of March and April 2017.

When students are choosing a major, they might usually be drawn to specific disciplines such as Psychology, Engineering, Biology, or etc. However, many might not realize that they may have the option to pursue a more unconventional route. One of our Career Peer Educators, Tiffani Kennedy (CLAS ‘17, Interdisciplinary Major - Cultural Studies and Communication) was initially in such a situation. Keep reading to see how she came to create her own Interdisciplinary Major Program through a tale of redirection and success.

Researching the Options

As a bright-eyed young scholar, Tiffani came to the University of Virginia thinking she would major in something like International Relations or Global Development Studies. She said, “Coming into college, I knew I wanted to study something with a global focus.” She then continued, “Although I had a general idea of what I wanted to study, I kept my options open and remained receptive to alternative majors.”

After she had taken some courses in a wide array of departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, Tiffani decided on applying to the Global Development Studies (GDS) program. “I took one GDS course, looked up to many GDS students, enjoyed learning about various cultures, had a bone for social justice, and had a couple of friends interested in GDS,” she explained, “So naturally, that meant that GDS was the perfect major for me, right?” Not quite.

Redirecting the Passion

In the spring semester of her second year, Tiffani applied for the GDS program but was not accepted into the major. She reacted naturally to this initial disappointment, “I sobbed for a good day because in my mind, GDS was the major for me!” Afterwards, Tiffani began to create a plan for choosing a different major: “I allowed myself a grace period of pity for a couple of days and then realized, ‘Well I came to college to get a degree. Now is the time to get it together and choose the major that would yield said degree.’”

A close friend advised Tiffani to start combing through the Student Integrated System (SIS) course directory and Lou’s List to find classes that would appeal to her. In following this advice, Tiffani found herself drawn to classes within the Sociology, Anthropology, Media Studies, and the African-American & African Studies (AAS) disciplines. “To my surprise,” Tiffani admitted, “none of the GDS courses even appealed to me except for one!” She then realized that perhaps GDS might not have been as ideal a major for her as she had once thought it to be.

However, after filtering through these course lists, Tiffani found herself to hit another wall. “Though zealous we may be, it is not possible (nor wise) for any student to quadruple major,” she joked. In the efforts of finding a solution to this dilemma, Tiffani resolved to thoroughly research each of the individual programs to see which might strike more of a chord with her. It was then her close friend gave her the idea of looking into the Interdisciplinary Major Program (IMP). “My decision was made,” Tiffani said, “I would find a way to fuse these programs together into one unique, innovative, and new program of study that was completely tailored for me.”

Rerouting the Path

For Tiffani, declaring the Interdisciplinary Major felt “pretty straightforward.” She laid out the process here:

You develop a proposal for your major of study. Included in this proposal, you must have:

  • An objective/justification for your program (you need to prove that you cannot get what you want from any other program at UVA)

  • A proposed curriculum of 30 credit hours (which will inevitably change a little bit)

  • An outline describing the three fields you will use to structure your major and a description of how they will be used in tandem

  • A list with the names of your major committee (this includes three advisers, one within each field)

  • A list with the names of your thesis committee (this includes two advisers, a first and second reader)

  • A section where you briefly propose a thesis topic because the Interdisciplinary Major Program is also a Distinguished Major Program (no worries, this proposal is non-binding)

  • At least a 3.4 GPA.

Admittedly, the time it might take to create the IMP proposal might be lengthy. Tiffani worked on her proposal for a majority of the second half of her spring semester in her second year into the beginning of the following fall semester. She explained, “What took so long wasn’t gathering my thoughts and immortalizing the program on paper; it was trying to organize my committees.” She went on to say, “You have to be very intentional and strategic in who you ask to serve on your committee because the success of your thesis is largely influenced by the members of your committee.” Finally, after the completion of the proposal, the applicant would then submit it to the IMP advisor (currently Shawn Lyons) for approval and possible acceptance into the program.

Rewriting the Narrative

One concern students may have about going a nontraditional route with their undergraduate major(s) might be how they would frame the IMP in a way that appealed to employers and other professionals in the workforce. Tiffani suggested, “What you name your major is completely up to your discretion. Be as creative as you’d like, but I would recommend that you choose a title that can be recognized outside of just you and your advisers.” For her own resume, she listed her major as “B.A. in Cultural Studies and Communication (interdisciplinary major incorporating Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies).” When speaking to potential employers, Tiffani would also further elaborate on the nature of the IMP, specifically the responsibilities she had in independently creating it to fit her interests. Then she would explain the objectives that she set out to accomplish with her interdisciplinary major.

Tiffani also found a lot of truth from her favorite piece of advice from the UVA Career Center about how “major does not equal career.” She said, “This was the greatest piece of advice I could have ever received because it put into perspective for me that I can and will do whatever I want.” She went on to relate the numerous transferable skills she has gained from her IMP, which she believed was key to choosing any major. For her specific interdisciplinary major, Tiffani had gained skills ranging from communication, project management, qualitative & quantitative research, negotiation, writing, problem solving, and much more. In fact, she said that these very skills would be a big component in better preparing her to go to law school and enter the workforce.

Looking back on her time in the program, Tiffani did recall some points she believed students should consider prior to deciding on the IMP (known as her “Fab Five”):

  1. What your values/needs are: Are you someone who needs a community and support network built into your program of study or can you work independently productively? The nature of this program doesn’t yield community, unless you actively pursue it (and sometimes, you may hit some walls). So, consider what your values and needs are prior to declaring. That way, you can be intentional in building this into your program from the start.

  2. Why you want to choose IMP: Are you certain that another program would not fulfill your intellectual needs? I would avoid falling into the trap of pursuing a particular program solely for the prestige attached to it, because whatever you choose to do will be hard work and you need something of substance connecting you to your major.

  3. Do your research: Research programs that interest you at other schools and if UVA does not have them, create one for yourself! Also, research how to create a program proposal before drafting yours. Not only is this simply professional, it will act as a guide for you for your remaining two years of undergrad. You will be able to reference back to your proposal if necessary.

  4. Hoo your advisers are: I cannot stress enough just how important your thesis advisers will be during your fourth year. We attend a university of phenomenal faculty. Pick faculty advisers that you work well with and who can also work well and fluidly with one another. I would recommend organizing a “meet and greet” for you and your two advisers well before the thesis process begins. The two of them are as much of team with one another as they are with you

  5. Trust yourself: Cliche and cheesy, but honestly you have to trust yourself and your capacity to organize, create, and manage a credible program of study. If you were led to this program and find that it is meant for you, as I found that it was meant for me, then you need to completely trust yourself!

In reflecting on her undergraduate career as a whole, Tiffani had one last suggestion. She observed, “UVA is very competitive. Sometimes it seems that everything at this university is a competition or fight of the fittest. This can have some detrimental consequences in the experiences of students, just as much as it can be a positive motivator.”

Her intention was to advocate for a different mindset, “I want to stress the sentiment that we must steadfastly hold on to the distinction between rejection and redirection.” She named the experience of not getting into a first choice major program as an example, “When people say they’ve been rejected, it is often because they feel rejected, which can lead to thoughts of inadequacy.” She thought back to the spring semester when she received the news of not getting into the GDS program, “I began to question my qualifications, question my application, and question my capacities. I thought that since I did not get into the program, that meant that I was lacking in one way or another.”

Tiffani then related, “As I look back on it, I didn’t get into GDS because I was being redirected to a program that would challenge me in different ways.” In conclusion, she added, “All of this is to say that what is meant to be, will be. If you don’t get what you thought you wanted or thought was meant for you, don’t fret. Something better is coming your way.”