Rafting toward New Majors

By Conciatore, Jacqueline | Black Issues in Higher Education, April 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Rafting toward New Majors


Conciatore, Jacqueline, Black Issues in Higher Education


From "adventure sports" to "integrative management," colleges are offering an unprecedented array of new courses and majors -- but questions abound.

"Mom, I've decided to major in adventure sports." Not words every mother wants to hear. We're talking mountain biking. Scuba diving. Spelunking. It's news to test a parent's open-mindedness.

Exotic or highly specialized majors carry the baggage of the unfamiliar -- negative assumptions come easy. But parents who fret about a child's unusual or unique study program might find comfort in a few points.

First, research shows that a student's choice of major doesn't have a significant bearing on their career path (see related story, pg. 24).

Second, many higher education experts agree exotic major programs can bear hallmarks of quality: committed teachers, high student demand, exciting internship or service learning opportunities.

Last, these unfamiliar programs are sometimes on the leading edge of curriculum development.

The downside?

Sometimes highly specialized course programs can leave students with too few career options. And experts caution that after the current "cool major" isn't cool with employers any more, students will be left in the dust with few transferable skills.

Still, many forge ahead into majors that parents, their professors and college administrators would never have dreamed of.

A Program for Every interest

Some of the curricular surprises that students can spring on family and friends include trade- or industry-specific programs such as auto restoration, racetrack management, cemetery management and furniture making.

Other, more academic degree programs, such as ecotourism, conflict management or human rights, are part of larger responses to social or world problems. Still other programs reflect their diverse communities. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, for example, offers a program in Puerto Rican studies.

Many new programs are actually old ones repackaged, either to appeal to students' changing sensibilities and priorities, or to reflect changing employer needs, says Marva Gumbs, director of career services at George Washington University.

For example, institutions lately have been reshaping business and international affairs curricula to address emerging needs of employers in such areas as cross-cultural communication.

"It's no different than eons ago when colleges decided to do international business where previously there was only domestic business," she says.

But some programs are unique. Garrett Community College in Western Maryland developed its two-year adventure sports program in cooperation with nearby Frostburg State University. Founded by physics instructor and adventure-sports enthusiast Mike Logsdon, the program takes advantage of the college's proximity to Appalachian wilderness to teach students backpacking, bobsledding, canoeing and kayaking in flatwater and whitewater, fly-fishing, hiking, snowboarding, and other sports.

It is a point of pride for the college.

"We started out with one or two students. Now we're the largest major in the college," with about 90 students enrolled, says program assistant Sharon Elsey-Wynn.

University students have transferred in, and professors have taken courses or even signed up for the degree program, she says. Students come from all over the country and a few Canadian students have enrolled.

The program has its own rigors, with courses that teach how to survive alone in the wild, and specialty courses such as Wilderness First Aid. It also requires regular general education classes in English, math and science.

Theory courses include Adventure Programming for Disabled Individuals, Leadership and Group Dynamics and program management.

"I think it's a little bit harder than other programs," Elsey-Wynn says. …

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