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Students take creative paths with Program II

Senior Kelly Teagarden's major can't be found in any course bulletin.

That's because Teagarden is the first and only student in the "Human Rights: Protecting and Providing Freedom, Justice and Peace" program, an interdisciplinary course of study investigating human rights in history, policy and philosophy.

The kicker: she invented the major herself.

"People tend to be pretty surprised," Teagarden said. "Everyone wants to know how I'm doing it."

Since her sophomore year, Teagarden has been a student in Program II, which allows students to design their own course of study. Each year since 1969, about a dozen undergraduates enroll, forgoing the comfort and familiarity of department requirements for a slate of classes all of their own choosing.

"[Program II students are] creative, they're innovative, and they went the extra mile to study what they wanted to study," said Associate Dean Norman Keul, who serves as academic dean for Program II.

From scientists who want to study health policy to dancers interested in the sociology of art, Program II participants span the academic spectrum.

According to its Web site, this year, Program II will have 17 graduates in various fields of study including national security, epidemic diseases and ecological economics.

But many students who choose to enroll said the process of setting up a Program II can be daunting. Applicants must submit a list of 14 to 16 courses with detailed explanations of why each is relevant to their course of study.

In addition, Program II students must write a five-page personal statement and obtain a letter of support from a faculty sponsor just to be considered by the selection committee, Keul said.

The committee typically rejects close to half of the applications it reads, forcing students to revise and resubmit, he added.

Once admitted, many students said they sometimes struggle to rearrange their schedules when their proposed courses are not available or are offered at conflicting times. The payoff, however, is well worth any administrative red tape, many said.

When senior Elizabeth Floyd was a sophomore, she was faced the with the complex task of trying to juggle interests in Spanish, Russian, linguistics and literature. She initially shied away from the prospect of creating her own course program, but said she eventually realized what she wanted to do was too idiosyncratic to fit in any traditional major. Hours of careful research and two rounds of application later, "Language, Culture & Literature: Spain and Russia" was born.

"I've gotten to study what I wanted to study, which is really all you can ask for," Floyd said.

Though there are no academic requirements for joining, Program II has traditionally drawn some of the University's strongest students. Despite enrolling fewer than 20 students per year, one quarter of Duke's Rhodes Scholars since 1995 have been Program II participants.

"It's not that Program II made them Rhodes Scholars but that the kind of person who finds Program II interesting also tends to have a kind of openness to the world that is privileged in the selection of the Rhodes," Keul explained.

Pooja Kumar, Trinity '01 and a 2004 Rhodes Scholar, said Program II allowed her an in-depth undergraduate focus on health policy and social values, a course of study that eventually took her to East Timor, Azerbaijan and Rwanda. There, she applied her Program II courses first-hand to issues of global health and humanitarian aid.

"I think everyone has to sit down at some point and ask: 'What are the most important questions or problems out there in the world? Where do my strengths, passions and abilities lie? And where are the intersections?'" Kumar said in a statement about her award.

Her words echo the sentiments of many of her Program II peers, who came into the program in search of a way to focus in on their interests.

Senior Gregory Little said he is using his Program II, "A Multi-Disciplinary Investigation of Exceptional Children in Society," as a springboard into a career in special education.

Similarly, Teagarden said for her, Program II has meant the freedom to take classes in various fields, including philosophy, political science, statistics and cultural anthropology, without an unwieldy combination of majors, minors and certificates.

"It's made my Duke experience focus on the areas I needed it to," she said. "If I had been confined to one department I wouldn't have had the multifaceted approach I did with Program II."

Keul noted that although Program II enrolls only a small number of students, its impact reaches into the general University community by signaling emerging fields of study.

"Over the years Program II has often been a bellwether for what's happening in scholarship," he said.

One-third of the seniors in Program II are studying a field related to global health, which did not exist as a course of study when the students were underclassmen. Today, Duke offers a certificate program in the field.

Similar trends are evident in fields such as ethics, architecture and statistics, in which early interest by Program II students helped fuel a general trend towards increased recognition of the disciplines, Keul said.

"Sometimes I feel like people pick majors by default," Teagarden said. "[Program II] is a great way to study what you're interested in without falling into a trap of convenience."


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