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Fine arts majors march to a different drummer

When sophomore Caroline Griswold graduates, she will watch her classmates disperse across the globe-to investment banks and medical schools, nonprofit companies and Ph.D. programs.

But Griswold has a different plan. After leaving Duke, she hopes to become a professional dancer.

"I knew this when I was applying [to Duke]," she said. "This is what I've always wanted to do with my life."

Griswold is one of two students to declare a dance major since the option was created last year. But she is far from the only Duke student with serious artistic ambitions.

Each year, the University awards degrees in four arts disciplines: dance, visual arts, music and theater studies. There are also certificates in film/video/digital and documentary studies and an English department honors thesis in creative writing.

Many arts majors at Duke have the talent to study at arts colleges or conservatories, said Scott Lindroth, vice provost for the arts and an associate professor of music. But they choose Duke to strike a balance between artistic enrichment and an internationally-regarded liberal arts education, he added.

"A school like Duke can offer an intellectually and culturally rich environment," he said. "There's a lot of opportunity for students to connect work they're doing in other subjects to the arts."

The University has made expansion of and support for the arts a major centerpiece of its most recent strategic plan, "Making A Difference."

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag said he sees campus-wide value in the arts. In recent years, he said, he has led a push in the admissions office to attract more artistically gifted students. Applicants may now choose to submit supplemental materials such as slides, videos or CDs, which are reviewed by professors in each arts discipline. They then compile a list of their strongest candidates.

"We pay particular attention to the most talented students," he said. "They get an extra benefit in admissions, and it makes a real difference in our admitting several dozen students a year."

But at a research university that prides itself on academic prowess, some said the arts are literally and figuratively out of view to much of the campus.

"Most people don't even know my major exists," said music major Jayne Swank, a senior.

She added that although there is much support on campus for her artistic pursuits, she also faces skepticism from other students who don't regard the arts as rigorous fields of study.

Keval Khalsa, an associate professor of dance, said the doubt comes from people failing to understand the intellectual breadth of Duke's arts programs, which are based heavily in theory and history. A visual arts major takes aesthetics classes alongside those in painting and sculpture, a theater studies major not only acts, but analyzes Shakespeare as well.

"These aren't throwaway classes," Griswold said. "They're real and they're challenging."

Cameo Hartz, assistant director of the Career Center, said many students feel pressure to choose a major connected to a lucrative career after graduation, making the arts a hard sell.

Still, many arts majors said they do intend to pursue their discipline professionally after graduation, but with a caveat.

"Ideally, I would want to just sit in a room for 12 hours a day and write, but I'll probably end up teaching too," said senior Maria Kuznetsova, an English major completing an honors thesis in creative writing.

Like their classmates in other disciplines, most arts students choose to double-major or pursue a minor or certificate. Faulkner Fox, a visiting instructor in the English department, said many of her students face pressure from their family and peers to choose a second, more "useful" field of study.

But Fox said she is wary of those who view the arts as impractical.

"[The arts] make people think more creatively and more critically. How can that not be important?"

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