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Majorly indecisive? Welcome to Program II

Four students' self-created courses of study

Some students come to Duke knowing their major from their first day of classes. Others take years to figure out their path. 

And others find that Duke’s existing majors don’t quite meet their passions, ending up in Program II, Duke’s program that lets undergraduates design their own courses of study. 

Integrative Arts and Health: Interventions and Collaborations

Senior Autumn Blamoville’s Program II grew from two passions that seemed too distinct to combine: music and science.

After attending a performing arts high school in New York City before Duke, Blamoville wasn’t ready to give up her love of music, but finding time for another major was proving a difficult task.

“I knew a lot about music and its effects on the brain with neuroscience, but I had never explored other art forms and how they can work in collaboration with medicine and health care to yield positive health outcomes in older adults,” Blamoville said. 

While she originally planned to focus her studies on music, her Program II grew to include dance, theater and other forms of art and their intersection with healthcare.

In designing her Program II, Blamoville established a partnership with Sarah Wilber, assistant professor of the practice of dance, who introduced Blamoville to an entire world of working artists in the healthcare system.

Her interests led to her work with TimeSlips, a Milwaukee-based organization that uses creative storytelling to engage with persons living with dementia. Blamoville also worked with Dance for Parkinson’s Disease to become a facilitator this past summer.

Blamoville is the vice president of the Program II Majors Union and is working to build community among Program II students despite the wide variety of interests.

“Our common interest is that we are all so passionate about what we are doing even though it might not be the exact same thing,” she said.

Because of the work required by each Program II student for approval of their topic, Blamoville has observed the deep investment of every student in their project. “We are all very determined and want to look past what is in the normal constraints of a major,” she said.

The Evolution of Consciousness

One question stuck out among the rest and led junior Rishi Dasgupta to dedicate his academic career at Duke to answering it: What makes us who we are?

To tackle such a big question on the human experience, Dasgupta knew he had to go beyond just one area of study or a traditional major. His Program II curriculum approaches the topic of human consciousness from three angles: biological, philosophical and evolutionary.

“If I wanted to ask these kinds of really big questions, I can’t just look at one of these things,” Dasgupta said.

It was during his sophomore year that Dasgupta designed a course schedule with classes that ranged from neuroscience to philosophy. Under the mentorship of Christine Drea, Earl D. McLean professor of evolutionary anthropology, Dasgupta was able to refine his question into a concrete path of study.

For Dasgupta, Program II allows him to pursue areas of study that he may never get the opportunity to experience after he graduates from Duke. While he hopes to eventually attend medical school and become a physician, Dasgupta wants to take advantage of every minute he has at Duke to pursue his passions.

He also sees his research on human consciousness as being particularly pertinent to one day become a medical provider.

“When I think about neurosurgery, you’re connecting with another person in the most visceral way possible,” he said.

The Manifestations and Reproductions of Childhood Trauma

After a summer spent researching at a child abuse evaluation center, junior Carly Jones came back to Duke inspired to design a Program II that addressed the questions she didn’t have time to answer in only a few weeks.

She designed a major that analyzes the psychosocial, neurological and genetic bases of childhood trauma and how that trauma is reproduced in communities through victim-offender overlap and increased participation in health risk behavior.

“After that summer, I was left with the conclusion that maybe goodness and productivity in society isn’t something that is indicative of personal characteristics but gained by privilege: whether you are born into an environment that is loving and nurturing or not,” Jones said.

While she initially planned to major in African & African American studies or gender, sexuality and feminist studies, Jones has found an increased freedom through Program II to branch out into other departments like neuroscience and ethics. Jones is mentored by Patrice Douglass, assistant professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, with whom she connected over their shared interests of the intergenerational mobility of harm and trauma.    

Jones also took advantage of Duke’s interinstitutional agreement with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro last semester. While she has no concrete plans for her senior project yet, Jones is looking forward to returning to a similar environment that began her Program II to apply the knowledge she has gained in the years since.

“It took me almost the entire summer to realize the trauma didn’t just start with the kids, it started generations before that,” Jones said. “It helped make me a more empathetic individual, and I want to carry that same empathy and understanding to my future work.”

Applied Mathematical Strategy

When senior Mac Gagne’ came to Duke, she knew she wanted to design her own Program II. But as she took classes throughout her first few semesters at Duke, she fell in love with math and declared it as her major her sophomore year.

While she loved the department and working with her professors, Gagne quickly realized her interests fell outside of the major curriculum. 

“Together, we came up with Program II as a way that I could study the exact area of applied mathematics I had been hoping to study all along: modeling human choice,” she said.

With only one semester left at Duke, Gagne said she’s excited to tackle her senior project, which focuses on mathematical modeling to improve the efficiency of triage practices in medicine.

By looking at a case study from Hurricane Katrina, Gagne is using math to see if more lives can be saved in emergencies while also taking into account moral and ethical implications, which she feels are too often left out of logic studies.

“Understanding decisions, how they should be made, and how they will impact the world around you is like hacking into human potential,” Gagne said. “A good strategy is everything, and the decision really does make the human.” 

Without Program II, Gagne feels she could have never tackled her interdisciplinary project.

While her interests have led her to research and internships at places from the National Weather Service to the Duke Lemur Center, Gagne hopes to break down the stereotype that Program II students can’t settle on one thing. According to Gagne, Program II students are both generalists and specialists who bridge together a variety of fields to specialize on one particular topic.

“Program II students often have a very specific goal of what they want to scholastically contribute to the world around them but must move interdisciplinary mountains to get there,” she said.


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