By Adam Click
When Fabrice Lesaffre ’03 first arrived on campus, he already knew he was going to choose two majors at Yale, but he was not sure what one of them would be. From the outset, he was very interested in international studies, an interdisciplinary program that can only be taken as a secondary major. After being accepted into IS in the fall of his sophomore year, Lesaffre had to search for a primary major, eventually choosing political science.
While double majoring was required for Lesaffre’s program of study, other Yale students have voluntarily undertaken the often arduous task of earning two majors for more personal reasons. Some students, torn obstinately between two subjects of equal interest, find that double majoring allows them to avoid making the difficult choice of selecting only one.
The numbers game
Many students voice an interest in double majoring throughout their undergraduate years, though few actually go through with the formality. According to Barry S. Kane, the registrar of Yale College, only 120 students out of a total 1,221 graduated with two majors in May 2002. At 9.8 percent, fewer than one in 10 Yale students walks away with more than one major.
While Yale’s number of double majors is relatively low, colleges across the nation are churning out more students with an accumulation of majors. The New York Times recently reported that a trend toward earning multiple majors has been sweeping college campuses around the country, in part due to students’ desire to increase marketability in a dismal labor market.
Twenty-three percent of Georgetown’s Class of 2002 held double majors, while 42 percent of Washington University’s liberal arts students graduated with two majors. Some schools, such as Boston University, even allow students to “quadruple major.”
Roxanne Tingir, a sophomore in Georgetown’s College of Arts and Science, said it is not hard to find students on campus engaged in the pursuit of a double major.
“I would say that most students are very hard workers and it’s not unusual at all for them to be focusing on more than one topic area,” Tingir said. “I also believe that it’s relatively common to have a major and minor.”
For Liz Kinsley ’05, choosing to double major allowed her to satisfy her twin passions for music and English. She said her academic curriculum has not been overly demanding thus far because she enjoys the classes that count toward her major.
“I couldn’t just major in music because I’d feel like I was missing out on some things that are just so fun and ‘academic,’ and I might as well pursue them while I’m here,” Kinsley said. “And if I don’t major in music, I will feel like I am kind of giving up on some dreams and a lot of what I’ve invested myself in for the past 10 years.”
Kinsley invoked the wisdom of Greg Yolen, a scene columnist for Yale Daily News, in defining what the major should represent to a particular individual.
“I feel like undergraduate majors should be geared toward learning the things you most want to know in life,” she said. “Greg Yolen once posed the notion that an undergraduate major should basically answer the question, ‘What do I want to die knowing most about?’ and I think that’s a valid thought.”
A fair number of Yale students electing music as a major often work to acquire a second major, as there is a perception that music’s legitimacy as a major may not be universally recognized.
“Some people think that you want to graduate with an academic subject, like a degree in biology,” said Anna Pelczer ’05, a music major and violist. “It’s very much up to each school how they want to define it.”
Pelczer said she is currently not planning to double major, preferring to explore a wide variety of classes that interest her, including history and sociology. She said a double major would require her to spend a summer taking extra classes instead of honing her musical talents.
Behind Ivy lines
Majors such as ethics, politics and economics and mathematics and philosophy allow students to integrate their interests into a single major. As an institutional rule, Yale forbids students from majoring in more than two disciplines. Additionally, students who double major can receive only one diploma. Those who complete a bachelor of arts degree in addition to completing a bachelor of science degree must also choose which degree distinction they want on their diploma.
Maggie Whittlin ’05 said she is planning to double major in physics and theater studies, which would allow her to pursue simultaneously her academic passion and her extracurricular passion. If she goes through with her plan, she said she will probably ultimately choose the bachelor of science degree in physics upon graduation, because it has a “more practical ring to it.” Whittlin said she is unsure of her future career plans, and she thinks physics would look better on her resume.
“[Theater studies] is a fairly light major in terms of classes, and also people come in with the impression that it’s a major their parents might not approve of or something they can’t fall back on,” Whittlin said.
In general, the Ivy League seems to be largely immune to the hype and hysteria surrounding additional majors. Princeton University does not even permit students to double major, though it does allow students to receive a certificate indicating concentration in a second subject. And Harvard’s approach to a second major differs from most universities in that it emphasizes an academic harmony between two subjects of interest.
“Harvard College doesn’t have majors and minors in quite the same way that many other schools do; we have ‘joint concentrations,’ where students can elect to integrate two fields of study into a coherent whole,” said Andrea Shen, a Harvard spokeswoman.
For example, a student interested in studying both electrical engineering and art may integrate the two into one major on the art of electrical engineering. But as the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences Handbook — the university’s equivalent of the Blue Book — states, “students who wish to combine two fields must file with the Office of the Registrar a Plan of Study that designates the two fields and has been approved by both concentrations.” In order for joint concentrations to be granted, the student’s intended plan of course must necessarily demonstrate “coherence” and “merit” and often entails extensive academic supervision.
In the last year, Yale has considered making a slight modification to the current majoring system. The faculty has made headway in creating a “correlated program,” which would be similar to a minor and would enable students to explore a new area of interest without undertaking the commitment of a second major. East Asian Studies may become the first model of a correlated program, though this possibility is still under discussion.
“We are currently reviewing options as to how we might best configure the East Asian studies undergraduate major to meet the needs of Yale students both within the major and across campus,” said Mimi Yiengpruksawan, chair of East Asian Studies. “We remain open-minded about possibilities for the future, but have not decided on any particular format for the major.”
The impetus for correlated programs followed an evaluation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in 2000, which found merit in allowing students to minor in a subject.
Sometime in the future, it may be possible for students like Lesaffre and Kinsley to receive recognition for their varied academic interests without having to double major. But for the time being, Yalies — unlike many other students across the nation — must choose between a packed schedule and an unrecognized venture into another field.