Six years ago, an undergraduate student’s efforts to create an interdisciplinary human rights major was rejected. So was her application to design her own major on the same topic.
Yet this fall, 15 students will be accepted into the Special Academic Program on Human Rights, designed to provide students with an academic framework and methodology with which to pursue studies and careers in human rights.
The program launched one year after Talya Lockman-Fine ’15 and Paul Linden-Retek LAW ’12 GRD ’18 approached Yale Law School professor — and director of the YLS Schell Center for International Human Rights — James Silk with a proposal for a Special Academic Program. Through student advocacy and faculty collaboration, the team maneuvered through the Provost’s Office, the Committee on Majors and the Yale College faculty to secure approval for the program.
“[The Human Rights Program] is a wonderful way of being able to accomplish some of these goals of giving undergraduate students an opportunity to engage in an interdisciplinary, but coherent, study of human rights,” Silk said.
The Human Rights Program is the latest addition to four other special academic programs — the Global Health Fellows Program, the Education Studies Scholars Program, the Energy Studies Undergraduate Scholars Program and the Yale Journalism Initiative — many of which originated from students’ efforts.
special academic programs give students an outlet to put concrete academic interests into action.
In 2010 Yale announced it would terminate its Teacher Preparation Program. An Education Studies track survived as an independent program thanks to student interest and commitment from the administration, Education Studies Scholars Program Director Elizabeth Carroll said.
After the departure of the two Education Studies Program directors in 2012 jeopardized the fate of the program, over 100 students signed a petition calling for then-University President-Elect Peter Salovey to guarantee the future of Yale’s Education Studies Program that December.
In the summer of 2013, an advisory committee of faculty, students and staff — formed by then-Yale College Dean Mary Miller — appointed Carroll as director of a new iteration of the program for the fall.
Capped at 20 students per graduating class, Carroll said there is significant interest in the program, with roughly four applicants for every spot.
Likewise, Energy Studies Undergraduate Scholars Program Director Michael Oristaglio GRD ’74 Oct. 3 and Oct. 31, Oristaglio said. Gordon said he convened the meetings with the leaders of the five special academic programs despite differences in focus, as the programs’ leaders could benefit from exchanging information. Topics discussed included procedures for admitting students, advising, curriculum development and building an intellectual community.
Silk said program leaders decided not to allow multiple students to be admitted into more than one program as a general rule, though he added there could be exceptions. Giving one student the opportunity to participate in two programs could potentially deny another student a seat in even one program, which he said would not be fair.
Program leaders also discussed whether or not to standardize requirements, as the programs currently differ in the number of required core courses and electives, Silk said.
Director of the Yale Global Health Initiative Elizabeth Bradley said she thinks that by sharing information, the programs will be helpful to one another. However, she said that it is effective for each program to have its own director and program advisor — because they are knowledgeable about both the program and the needs of students.
Though faculty members decided earlier that special programs would not appear on students’ transcripts, Oristaglio said program leaders revisited the question during their meeting and that it may come up for a vote in the future.
But he added that because the Registrar’s Office now sends transcripts and a full record of a student’s history at Yale electronically through databases, the question of whether special academic programs will be listed on printed transcripts may become irrelevant in the future.
Despite the lack of an official record, Tess Maggio ’16, who is involved in the Energy Studies Program, said the program labels still give recognition to the interests she cultivates outside her major.
“It’s nice to be able to give a name to something you studied,” she said.that the model of Special Academic Programs has its own benefits, notably inter-disciplinary approaches, a tight-knit community and a professional focus.
“[Human Rights is] really interdisciplinary, and the model fits this very well,” Lockman-Fine said. “The idea is not to come to Yale and just do [Human Rights]. You have your main focus, and then this is a way to pursue your interests and shape the way you are thinking about other things.”
The handbook for directors of undergraduate studies in Yale College defines Special Academic Programs as distinct from both majors and minors — they neither offer the same depth of study as a major, nor are reduced versions of existing majors.
Oristaglio said that during the process of formulating an undergraduate program on energy studies four years ago, the possibility of proposing a major was considered.
Yet the organizing committee of students and faculty decided against a major and opted for a Special Academic Program, due to the field’s multi-disciplinary nature — spanning the sciences, anthropology, history, economics and public policy — and the subsequent difficulty of finding an appropriate department to house the major.
Program directors and students interviewed said they consider the exposure to a variety of disciplines one of the primary strengths of the model.
“Academics is one of the last bastions of specialization where people can focus on one particular field,” Oristaglio said. “Once you’re out in a non-academic setting, you’re working in a multidisciplinary setting and it helps to be trained in that.”
Though Maggio said that she would still be able to study the same academic subjects without the program, she was drawn to energy sts of special academic programs is their close, intimate communities of diverse students and faculty who share a common interest.
Education Studies Scholar Skylar Shibayama ’16 said the immediate benefits of the program are its ability to connect students of widespread interests, with whom he otherwise would not have discussed education.
Global Health fellow Adam Beckman ’16 said his program has many faculty members committed to its courses and students. Unlike many of the large majors with hundreds of students across the University, Beckman said he has found it easy to find strong mentorship, advising and support.
Education Studies Scholar Grace Lindsey ’15 said she appreciates the program’s ability to connect scholars not only with other students, but also with the New Haven community in an academic context, particularly in the capstone project.
“I will have the opportunity to engage with New Haven in a way that is practical and purposeful, which is unique to the Education Studies Scholars Program because of its connections with organizations in New Haven,” she said.
Lockman-Fine said the Human Rights Program can act as a connector between students and Yale Law School, though she emphasized the program itself is not pre-law. As Silk is the director of the Schell Center, students in the program will have many opportunities to interact with the center and or those students interested in pursuing law, gain exposure to the field, she added.
Still some students said they hope the programs would increase their connections and networking opportunities. Maggio said she hoped to see more structured connection to alumni and between students in the energy studies program.
“I still think we don’t all necessarily know each other,” she said.