Academics without borders

Jan 07, 2015

Unique combinations of majors, minors, research and travel are among the hallmarks of a North Central College education. A commitment to the philosophy of interdisciplinary studies that began in the 1970s continues to serve our alumni and students, who’ve combined their unique interests and studies for professional and personal fulfillment.

For Heidi Brick ’13, combining a dance minor with psychology made perfect sense. Now earning a master’s degree in child psychology at Kingston University London, she’s using her dance training as she assists and supports a woman with a rare neuro-developmental disorder. “I have found music and dance to be a therapeutic outlet for her,” says Brick. And majoring in both mathematics and theatre is motivating Jack Ryan ’16 to combine his passions into tangible research—analyzing critical reviews to mathematically predict the winners of the Tony awards. “I didn’t want to lose theatre as a part of my life,” says Ryan.

The ability to combine disciplines such as math and theatre attracts students like Ryan, a College Scholar, and others who seek a liberal arts curriculum that allows one-third of their credits to be used for “exploration.” At the helm of the College’s integrative curriculum is Francine Navakas, Svend and Elizabeth Bramsen Professor in the Humanities and professor of English. An expert in the field of interdisciplinary studies, she lectures and publishes on interdisciplinary theory and practice and the successes of North Central College. She oversees the implementation of interdisciplinary courses—required for all students before they graduate—and advises students who want to combine academic interests across the curriculum.

“Not all schools make these types of double majors and integrated experiences possible and others—far from encouraging students to be multi-faceted—may place barriers in the way of students who wish to study other disciplines,” says Navakas. “I’m finding that students want to study a field that’s practical but they also want to satisfy their personal interests and passions.” She adds that graduates today need intellectual flexibility for new challenges over their careers and to become nimble thinkers and creative problem solvers.

The late Dick Eastman (H) ’93, professor of English emeritus, guided the faculty through Project Phoenix in the early 1970s when he was academic dean. As a result, boundaries between 24 distinct academic departments were erased, pairing academic specialization with integrative learning. In more recent years, such thinking produced the interactive media studies major, which pulls courses from computer science, art, English, journalism and broadcast communication—and is one of the College’s most popular majors.

The History of Ideas curriculum, another hallmark academic program, embodies a multidisciplinary approach to looking at ideas through the lens of philosophy, history, politics and literature. These courses are of keen interest to prospective College Scholars and others who like the idea of studying primary texts alongside students from varied disciplines.

Alumni are realizing the benefits from this open-ended but rigorous learning atmosphere. “Interdisciplinarity has absolutely influenced my post-North Central College education and current work,” says Alyssa Vincent ’09, an information services librarian at Erikson Institute, a small graduate school in Chicago. Her journalism major and gender and women’s studies minor were reflected in her honors thesis about the evolution of feminist journalism, and she was named an outstanding student in interdisciplinary studies. “Sometimes I think I pursued academic librarianship because I wanted to work directly with all kinds of different subjects rather than focus on just one.”

Brick links her academic preparation in diverse fields—psychology, dance and study abroad in Australia—to her success today. “I was well-prepared to earn a master’s degree in child psychology at Kingston University London,” she says. “At Macquarie University in Sydney, I took psychology, sociology, and dance courses and I was inspired by professors from all over the world.” Her dance minor complemented her 20 years of dance training and today influences her psychology work. “I’m working with a woman with Williams syndrome, and as her social care worker I’ve introduced many styles of artistic expression.”

Like Brick, Ryan intends to pursue graduate school and ultimately wants to obtain a Ph.D. in mathematics to become a college professor. Last summer he went to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for a research project funded by the National Science Foundation. He also delved into theatre research by viewing musicals in New York City and in London to compare differences in acting, singing and dancing. Both research projects will be presented at the College’s Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research in May. “At some point, I may go back to graduate school to get a master of fine arts so that I can teach either math or theatre courses at a college or university,” he adds.

Travel supported by Richter Independent Study Fellowships allows students to pursue their studies in far-flung locations. Kelleigh Kuehl ’16 used a Richter grant to travel to Italy to explore her interests in art, architecture and history, which complement her mathematics major and physics minor. “My research is about symmetry in Italian cathedrals,” she says. “I will be looking for historical events that could have influenced shifts in patterns.”

Emily Bishop ’15 has traveled to Japan to study culture and film to complement her Asian language studies and international business major. With the help of Navakas, Bishop is working on an honors thesis that considers “whether or not a cohesive vision of utopia exists for Japan,” she explains.

Taylor Harrison ’15, an English major, has combined her passion for ministry and service work in Honduras with her academic interests. With the help of a Mironda K. Heston Scholarship she created a photojournalism book for an orphanage to increase awareness for the organization and its child sponsorship program. Now she’s working on a fiction book about a young girl traveling to multiple continents, a project that will become her honors thesis. “My friends at bigger state schools never mention opportunities like these,” she says. “North Central emphasizes interdisciplinary courses and opportunities and everyone here allows for flexibility.”

Students who are as comfortable with disciplines like computer science and marketing as they are performing on stage enjoy the opportunity to do both, like Bradly Donati ’15 and Brett Bush ’15. Both came to North Central to study fine arts disciplines and later decided to alter their career paths. Donati didn’t have to give up his love for playing trumpet when he decided to pursue marketing and finance instead of a major in music. And Bush still enjoys theatre while majoring in computer science. “I love to create and I view my computer science major as another tool for creativity,” says Bush. “Whether the product is a video game, a musical composition, art or an emotional reaction from an audience, creating something new that has never existed before excites me.”

Taylor Harrison

Taylor Harrison '15