Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Unsure of what to major in when she arrived at the College of Arts & Sciences, Rachel Klepper searched for signposts in the curriculum. She’d loved high school history, so she took college courses that fanned her passion. Then, the summer before sophomore year, she did volunteer work in India. “When I came back, I knew that I wanted to take some course that would help me figure out where I had just been,” says Klepper (CAS’13).
She found it in an anthropology class on the culture and religion of South Asia and fell in love with that discipline, too. “I realized anthropology would give me more opportunities to learn about parts of the world that I wanted to go to or I had never been to,” she says. Where another student might have faced a dilemma in choosing between the two, Klepper spied opportunity. She majored in both.
The decision not to choose between history and anthropology, she says, was a triumph of following her heart rather than a clear academic path. “I really just took what seemed most interesting and then saw where it led me.”
CAS, it seems, majors in attracting polymaths. One-fourth of its undergraduates pursue more than one major or degree, placing it 10th out of 27 schools examined by the Association of American Universities.
Within CAS, BU’s liberal arts citadel, popular pairings include economics with international relations or math, history with political science, and biology with psychology. But some students major in one CAS subject and a related subject at another BU school (political science and journalism, economics and business administration, English and film and television studies, and psychology and communication are common). These choices wed obviously overlapping fields, but that’s not necessary; in 2012, creative students designed dual majors in such diverse fields as religion and mathematics and history and deaf studies.
The robust double-major stats tell Virginia Sapiro, dean of Arts & Sciences, that the University is attracting academically oriented students who are integrating different branches of knowledge into their education.
“It’s not hard for a CAS student to do multiple majors if they get good advising and pay attention,” Sapiro says. “They’ll say to me all the time, ‘Can I do biology and English? Can I do psychology and international relations?’” Her advice is to “ask yourself: Are you interested enough to do all that’s involved in both of those majors? Are you in a position in your degree where you’re doing it efficiently so that you can complete all of the requirements for both of those majors? If they come in senior year and say, ‘I think I’m doing a double major,’ I say, ‘How many years do you want to be here?’”
A double major make sense, she says, “if you can fit it in, and it suits your interests, and you have good advising so you’re not just screwing around and having trouble completing your degree.” Or degrees. To Sapiro, getting dual degrees, as BU offers, involves the same considerations and benefits as multiple majors. When the Class of 2013 marched onto Nickerson Field for Commencement last May, 120 undergraduates received degrees from more than one BU college, with the most popular combination being CAS and the College of Communication, according to Elizabeth Loizeaux, associate provost for undergraduate affairs and a CAS professor of English.
“Dual degrees require more credits—144 minimum, versus 128 minimum for a single degree,” Loizeaux says. “Both double majors and dual degrees are excellent ways for students to extend depth, combine the liberal arts with the professions, and enable creative thinking across disciplines.”
Klepper found that she could apply lessons from each of her majors to the other, giving her what she describes as “different ways of looking at the subject.” Both demanded much reading and writing, and she’s confident that the resulting skills in comprehension and self-expression will be gold in the job market. She’s just begun working for a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, running after-school programs.
Pursuing dual majors definitely required sacrifices, Klepper says. She regrets not having more time to study a foreign language. Majoring in two subjects inevitably means two sets of advanced classes during some semesters. But she usually didn’t feel overwhelmed, thanks to masterful time-management skills. In fact, she graduated with a 3.91 grade point average. That’s not an anomaly: the average GPA of BU’s multiple-major students is 3.41, versus 3.17 for those with a single major.
As a liberal arts school, Sapiro says, CAS encourages such synergy. “For us, the major is less than half the degree. That’s not true at a professional school. A liberal arts and sciences degree is not about the major. It’s about getting a breadth of knowledge, certain critical skills, and depth in at least one field, so the students have real experience in digging deep…and really knowing how to solve problems at an advanced level.” It’s no accident, she says, that most American entrepreneurs studied liberal arts.