PRIME: Forging a new path

(Megan Fu/PRIME art director)

By Iman Baber

August 15, 2022 at 5:16 p.m.

Amy Akiba felt stuck. 

Now an alumnus, Akiba entered UCLA in 2020 with a declared major in linguistics and psychology. However, she struggled in her classes and immediately knew it wasn’t the right major for her. She wished to pursue her interest in the intersection of psychology and education instead. With the added stress of starting at UCLA during the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt desperate to find a different path. 

“Eventually, I emailed the dean of admissions (Dean of Undergraduate Education Adriana Galván), and I told her my story,” Akiba recounted. “I basically told her, ‘Help, I’m dying.’”

After her initial email, Akiba was redirected to the Honors College. It was from the staff there that she learned there was another option: creating her own major. 

Akiba graduated in 2022 with a degree in her self-designed curriculum, Psychological Development and Learning. The major included classes from a variety of departments, such as psychology, sociology and education, and examined the role education plays in shaping an individual’s interests and pathways.

UCLA offers more than 125 majors and over 90 minors, but for some students, none of these options line up with their academic goals. For about the past four decades, UCLA has allowed such students to propose, create and complete their own majors in pursuit of their passions. While the Undergraduate Education and honors programs oversee the creation of individual majors, all students are welcome to make their own curriculum, regardless of honors status.

But few students actually take on the challenge – a testament to the individual major program’s difficulty and obscurity. More than two decades ago, the program reached its highest count, enrolling just seven students in winter quarter 2001. As of this past spring, there were only five students declared as an individual major. 

While the individual major program offered the flexibility and creativity Akiba craved, she faced a tough road ahead. To begin the process, students must submit a 15- to 20-page proposal, detailing a list of relevant courses and a lengthy explanation of why no other major will satisfy their goals. In her proposal, Akiba provided explanations against six different majors, acknowledging possible combinations of these programs as well.

“You usually can just double major if you want, or just major and minor, or double major and minor,” Akiba said. “It (an individual major) is a lot of not only extra work, but you have to prove that no other major here at UCLA works for you.” 

(Megan Fu/PRIME art director)

Students do not navigate the process alone. In the early stages of proposing a major, they must recruit two professors in relevant fields as advisors. Ava Boehm, an incoming fourth-year student double majoring in sociology and a self-designed curriculum entitled Language and Power, sought support from a variety of professors. Her major analyzes the relationships between language, culture and social dynamics, connecting to her larger interests in linguistics and sociology.

Boehm’s course selections are as far-reaching as her interests. Drawing on offerings from the anthropology, sociology and linguistics departments, among others, she and her faculty advisors worked together to decide which classes went into her academic plan. However, the pandemic introduced significant roadblocks in her ability to connect with her mentors. 

“We definitely have encountered challenges just in terms of communicating,” Boehm said. “I haven’t met either of them (my advisors) in person. We’ve done it entirely over Zoom and through email.” 

For both Boehm and Akiba, finding mentors during the pandemic meant cold emailing professors they had never met. Boehm found herself looking up professors online and contacting them based on the interests outlined on their faculty pages. And of course, not everyone was willing to take on the role. 

“I’ve gotten plenty of rejections,” Akiba said. 

But Boehm felt the effort was well worth it. Her mentors’ expertise in their fields and UCLA’s course offerings allowed her to hone the focus of her major – guidance that she said was much needed.

“They’ve been super helpful,” Boehm said. “I had a very clear idea of what I was looking for, but I didn’t fully know how to realize it.”

But the challenges of pursuing an individualized major persist beyond the planning process. Emery Grahill-Bland, an alumnus who graduated in the spring, explained that one of the main downfalls of the program is the fact that its students’ academic progress is not reflected on the Degree Audit Reporting System. Because of this, she had to vigilantly monitor her own coursework, remaining in constant contact with her counselors to ensure she was on track to graduate. 

“I’m graduating at the end of the spring (quarter),” Grahill-Bland said in April. “And I keep getting emails from my DARS that says I am not graduating.”

Grahill-Bland initially came to UCLA majoring in chemistry. However, her interests extended far beyond the scope of this major, as she set her sights on life beyond Earth. 

Anthony Friscia, a professor of integrative biology and physiology who served as Grahill-Bland’s faculty advisor, met her when she was a student in Cluster 70: “Evolution of Cosmos and Life.” Grahill-Bland attended his office hours often, Friscia said, and discussed her interest in astrobiology.

“I knew through our various interactions that she was interested in science broadly and astronomy,” he said. “She talked about wanting to be an astronaut.” 

During her sophomore year, Grahill-Bland finally began the process of designing her major, titled Astrobiology: Understanding and Relating the Chemical Origins of Life in the Universe. The curriculum reflects her passion for a variety of STEM fields, sampling courses not only in astronomy but geology, evolution and physics, among other subjects. 

However, once the course list is approved, enrollment introduces another logistical barrier for students with individual majors. Because students in the program do not belong to any academic department, they are unable to secure a seat in many necessary courses during their first enrollment passes. Grahill-Bland recalled multiple quarters in which she attempted to enroll in upper-division biology courses only to find the classes were restricted to students in the major. Because of this, she and other students in the program are forced to quickly become experts in adjusting their plans at the last minute, either altering their required course list or emailing instructors to ask for a spot.

“That was definitely frustrating,” Grahill-Bland said. “It was one of those things where you have to be able to advocate for yourself.” 

Students in the program must consistently stay connected with their mentors and counselors to ensure timely progress toward graduation as well as traverse the logistical roadblocks that come with pursuing their own majors. Howard Adelman, a psychology professor who mentored Akiba, said in an emailed statement that the ability to remain motivated and driven is the key to success in an individual major. Although Adelman supported Akiba as she drafted her curriculum, he said Akiba came to him with an already detailed plan and proposal, which he modified as he saw fit. While she pursued her degree, Adelman said Akiba reached out whenever she had questions about the program. 

Although small in size, UCLA’s individual major program in some ways measures up to similar programs offered at private universities across the country. At New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, all students personally design and complete their own undergraduate curriculum.

Summer Kim Lee, a professor in the English department, experienced Gallatin firsthand, developing her own major in postcolonial feminist performance. The experience was not unlike that of a doctoral program, she said.

Like at UCLA, Lee and other NYU students studied under the guidance of faculty mentors and created their own curriculums. To finish her studies at Gallatin, Lee completed a senior thesis and colloquium – a comprehensive oral exam concerning her field of study. While both UCLA’s and Gallatin’s programs offer flexibility for students, they require a core set of classes: interdisciplinary seminars and core education classes at Gallatin and the general education requirements at UCLA.

Despite these similarities, there are ways in which UCLA’s program cannot compare to schools such as Gallatin. Because the entire college is dedicated to fostering unique majors among its students, Lee said she did not have to worry about logistical challenges such as scheduling classes – challenges that students with individual majors at UCLA face frequently.

From the inability to utilize DARS to being barred from classes during enrollment, pursuing an individualized curriculum at UCLA can seem daunting. However, Akiba hopes more students take advantage of the program, as she feels the opportunities that arise from it outweigh the difficulties. 

(Megan Fu/PRIME art director)

“I wish that more people knew about it,” Akiba said. “Because it would allow them the opportunity to really think, ‘Oh, maybe I can create something of my own that is interdisciplinary, that doesn’t pigeonhole me.’” 

Looking ahead, Akiba hopes to earn a graduate or doctoral degree in clinical psychology, with the ultimate goal of becoming a clinical psychologist or clinical therapist. However, these aspirations are not set in stone. Her individual major has been a blessing, she said, and has taught her to remain open-minded to new opportunities. She hopes to help others gain the opportunities afforded to her and pursue what they are truly passionate about.

Boehm also expressed gratitude for the program, adding that the experience has helped her pursue her interests in social justice and advocacy. While she is still exploring her career options, she said the effort of an individual major was absolutely worth it, as it allowed her to study fields she felt interested in. 

As for Grahill-Bland, her interdisciplinary interests culminated in her final project for her major.  Passionate about mentorship and an avid student of STEM, her enthusiasm for science and teaching intersected when she taught a student-led course entitled Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences 88S: “Applied Astrobiology: Design your own Alien Microbe.” She hopes to become a science educator one day – a career for which she now feels prepared after graduating with her degree in astrobiology.

“You get to be interdisciplinary. You get to be exploring as many different, random, eclectic parts of this university as you can,” Grahill-Bland said. “And that’s a blessing, right? It’s awesome to be able to create your own path and see where it leads you.”

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