New university studies program starts strong

Sept. 9, 2014

By Steve Tuttle
ECU News Services

From zero to 142 majors in one year is rapid growth for a new degree program at East Carolina University. The university studies program has experienced that surge because its flexible curriculum appeals to a definite niche of students, officials said.

University studies degree major Connor Mangold, a junior in the ECU Honors College, is using the degree program to merge his interests in music and computer science.
“We’re getting off to a very strong start,” said program director Dr. Rondall Rice. The first four graduates with the university studies degree graduated at the end of summer session. Twenty-three are on track to graduate this winter, Rice said.

ECU created the university studies major in response to the need of students whose interests and talents don’t easily fit into any major.

Generally speaking, the students he sees come from two academic backgrounds, Rice said. “There are the journey students and the off-ramp students.

“Journey students didn’t find a passion for something, although they took a bunch of courses.

“Off-ramp students are those that tried a traditional degree. They got pretty far into the major but changed their minds, so they try to transition into another major.”

The problem for both kinds of students, Rice said, is they sometimes get discouraged and drop out.

University studies takes an individual, personal approach. “We look at what they have taken and then look at what they’re trying to do,” Rice explained.

“We try to help them find their inner passion,” he said.

One university studies major is Connor Mangold, a junior from Kinston in the ECU Honors College. He’s what Rice would call an off-ramp student.

“I was a music student but I decided that wasn’t for me,” Mangold said. He decided his real interest was an emerging field that blends computer science and art.

“My main area of study is sound design… for electronic music,” he said. “So, my major is part computer science, part music and part animation.

“The best thing about this degree is that it allows me to learn many aspects” of sound design, Mangold said. “It’s still early but I enjoy the fact I get to focus on different fields.”
We look at what they have taken and then look at what they’re trying to do.... We try to help them find their inner passion.

- Dr. Rondell Rice, director, university studies

Students declaring for the university studies major on average arrive with just under 109 credit hours earned, Rice said. “If you consider that most degrees require 120 hours, they’re close to getting a degree.”

Rice said some new students in the program arrive without the 2.5 GPA that most majors require, while others have great GPAs but just couldn’t decide on a major, he said.

“The students who are drawn to us probably would have left the university without a degree,” he said.

After an initial introductory course, students meet with advisers who design a “thematic core” of courses that best fit each student’s interests. For the required capstone experience, students may chose to work an internship, complete a project or write a research paper.

For now the university studies program is a free-standing unit, Rice said. “We are not under any of the colleges. It is under the Academic Affairs division, and we work directly for (Senior Associate Provost) Austin Bunch.”

The unit operates out of offices in the Old Cafeteria Building.

Among the first four graduates was Katelyn Morris. Rice said her thematic core, entitled “Adaptive Technology,” included courses in communication, technology, leadership, multicultural sensitivity comma deleted and children’s special education.

She interned with a high-tech company in Charlotte, which hired her after graduation.

Morris said she hopes her degree will allow her to “work towards selling technology that would allow the autistic child to learn to communicate through devices that will give these students a new sense of freedom.”

Another summer graduate, Kristen Ramsey, entitled her thematic core, “Human Development Through Art.” She combined art and education classes while mixing in psychology and leadership courses.

Her goal is to become an art therapist working with children, and she hopes to attend graduate school after completing an internship at an art gallery in Virginia.

Rice said one university studies student is conducting research this fall, in-concert with the Brody School of Medicine, on how electronic medical records are changing the health care industry.

He said he expects the university studies program will experience another growth spurt next fall. “The next level (of growth) will come from ‘part-way home’ students after we advertise to them. These are ones that dropped out or had other problems. This is specially tailored for former military,” Rice said.

Rice said he expects that by next fall all of the program's courses will be available online.