New multidisciplinary studies degree made for students with varied interests

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On the Commencement stage, Brianna Roberts (center) is congratulated by Richard Diem (left), dean of the UTSA Honors College. Roberts was hooded on the stage by her mother, Kimberly Kline (right), UTSA associate professor of communication. (Photo by Mark McClendon)

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(June 14, 2012) -- On Oct. 13, 2008, San Antonio College freshman Brianna Roberts '12 decided that she didn't want to go into journalism after all. That was the day that Alan Godin fatally shot a fellow librarian at Northeast Lakeview College.

"I was there to cover the shooting for Ranger, the newspaper at San Antonio College, and I was the first reporter on the scene," Roberts recalls. "People were grieving. I realized that I couldn't get up in people's faces during a bad time; journalists have to do that."

But, Roberts was an exceptional writer, following in the footsteps of her mother, Kimberly Kline, a UTSA associate professor of communication and assistant vice provost for assessment. And, Roberts was good with people. So, she made the jump and transferred to UTSA, where she began taking sociology classes.

The sophomore settled in quickly at UTSA, joining both the Honors College and the university's nationally ranked debate team.

In summer 2010, Roberts competitively earned a spot in UTSA's Summer Law School Preparation Academy. The experience intrigued her, and she began taking legal studies courses shortly thereafter.

In spring 2011, she nabbed an internship with state Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio). Later that year, she put theory into practice when she worked in the Education Department of the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C., as part of the Archer Fellowship Program offered by the UTSA Honors College. She earned honors studies credit for the experience at Capitol Hill.

By the time Roberts was a junior, she had racked up courses in sociology, legal studies and honors studies. Yet, none of it was enough to keep her on a four-year timeline for graduation.

She found her solution in fall 2011, when UTSA introduced the Bachelor of Arts Degree in Multidisciplinary Studies. The program allows undergraduates to combine courses from three subject areas to create a customized degree. Six courses are required in the first focus areas while five courses each are required from the two subsequent areas. Students may choose any three focus areas as long as one is offered through the College of Liberal and Fine Arts or College of Sciences.

Roberts chose to pursue a multidisciplinary studies degree with concentrations in sociology, legal studies and honors studies. The combination allowed her to use all of the academic credits she'd earned at both UTSA and San Antonio College. And, the icing on the cake? She would still graduate in four years.

"If Brianna had pursued a major in sociology or legal studies, it would have taken her two extra semesters -- about 10 more courses-- to graduate," said Kline.

But the new alumna cautions that the degree program shouldn't be treated as a catchall.

"You need to know exactly what you want to do; you need to be focused," she says. "You can't just throw three things together because you like them. You need to know why you're picking each focus area and what you plan to do with each one."

Gabriel Acevedo, a UTSA associate professor of sociology, agrees. He serves as the faculty adviser to students majoring in multidisciplinary studies. The program, which began with 14 students, has already outpaced faculty expectations and now serves more than 140 declared majors.

UTSA has found that many of the students interested in declaring a multidisciplinary major are transfer students who are eager to graduate on time but have accrued a lot of credits in differing subject areas. Others are among the 3.5 million adults who report "some college" and want to return to school to complete their degrees. Others are incoming freshmen and sophomores who have unique skills sets and are intrigued by the idea of a customized academic plan that allows them to take full advantage of the varied opportunities UTSA offers.

Acevedo notes that the program has grown much larger than UTSA anticipated.

"We're at a point now where we are being assigned office space and discussing ways to make student advising more convenient and straightforward for students," he says.

He adds that in just a year, advisers are already seeing baseline trends.

"We're seeing a lot of students like Brianna, who are choosing sociology as a focus area," Acevedo says. "Once you take Introduction to Sociology, you have a wide variety of courses available that you can take in a timely manner. Students have quite a bit of flexibility in scheduling sociology courses, and the courses offer useful, marketable skills from data management, statistical analysis, to managing focus groups and carrying out in-depth interviews."

Acevedo also sees a lot of multidisciplinary studies majors choosing business as a focus area.

This spring, Roberts returned to Senator Van de Putte's office to extend her internship and polish her skill set. And, in May, just four years after she started, she crossed the UTSA commencement stage.

Ultimately, Roberts would like to work as the chief-of-staff for an elected leader. Until then, however, she's keeping her options open. The alumna has applied to the Annie's List Campaign School. She's also looking for job openings in preparation for the 2013 Legislative Session.

But one thing's for certain.

"The multidisciplinary studies degree was a lifesaver," she says. "If it weren't for the multidisciplinary studies degree, I would not have graduated on time."