Ferrisa Connell did not come to Florida A&M with the intention of majoring in interdisciplinary studies (IDS). In fact, when the Tampa native arrived on “The Hill,” that major did not exist.
The 25-year-old Connell first aspired to major in theatre arts. She later stumbled upon a love for public relations, so she found herself heavily active in FAMU’s School of Journalism and Graphic Communication.
Connell realized as she closed in on graduation that her struggles with the foreign language requirements were going to prolong her quest for a public relations degree. Connell had more than enough credits after five years at FAMU to qualify for a degree in interdisciplinary studies, which is what she earned in May.
The university created the interdisciplinary studies major in 2014 for students like Connell, who had enough credits to earn a degree but were finding barriers to graduating in their chosen major.
Her final choice did not come easy, however, as Connell said she spent time fighting her decision for fear of disappointing mentors. She said a part of finding oneself is relying on your own struggle.
“If you think about it, you graduate high school and then you’re just told to pick a major,” Connell said. “You don’t really know who you are or what you like because you’re evolving every single day.
“I come from a very supportive family,” she added. “And to be honest my family just wanted to see me walk.”
Spending an extra amount of time and money was the straw that broke the camel’s unrelenting back, so Connell set her eyes on the new major.
A degree and 25 internships later, Connell’s choice has paved her way for a promising career. Connell is a motivational speaker at Camfel Productions and has her own business, Internsations.
Connell said that with a program like IDS, the possibilities are endless, not limited.
“I don’t think students know what they’re capable of doing in the program,” Connell said. “It isn’t like a free pass degree and you find people of all walks of life in this program.”
Approximately 700 students at FAMU have graduated from interdisciplinary studies. The highest number of students graduated was seen in Summer 2016 with 137 graduates and the program expects around 90 students to graduate this fall.
When it was introduced in Fall’14, only seven students graduated under IDS.
Through a feasibility study in 2013, the university was able to examine the need for the IDS program, according to Valencia Matthews, dean of the College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities.
“What the program does provide is flexibility for students who are interested in a number of different disciplines,” Matthews said. “It has areas of emphasis that allows students who may have been in another area and determined that wasn’t the place for them.”
The program was designed in such a way that completed courses could be put into a student’s curriculum strategically. Students have the ability to use courses that they have already passed to continue on with their graduation through the program.
IDS does not have designated faculty, so students still have to take courses through the different colleges and schools on campus.
“For students who were out there, in some instances, floundering, this can be a place for them to go,” Matthews said.
Some people around campus are still on the fence about the program, but Matthews suggested that some students are not always in the right major and seek change by using what they do have credit wise.
“There’s a mixture of responses or reactions to interdisciplinary studies because they’re not sure of what the animal is, but it has allowed students to graduate,” Matthews said. “Ultimately it’s not hurting any of the other programs because they’re graduating (their students) too.”
Programs around the university that are not limited access are finding students who have turned to IDS to speed up their graduation.
“It’s still a liberal arts degree,” Matthews said. “They can direct (their degree) in many ways. I think there’s the belief that if students are in IDS, they don’t have a good GPA, but (students) run the gamut just like any other major at the university.”
Formally referred to as a bachelor’s in liberal arts, degrees in interdisciplinary studies have been awarded for more than 50 years at most schools.
Merlin Langley, director of the division of interdisciplinary studies in the College of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities, gave his description for what the IDS program entails.
“IDS is a novel and unique approach to education to allow students to have flexibility in the development in their degree program, so rather than get a degree in a specific discipline you get a degree based on credit hours completed across various disciplines,” Langley said.
Langley confirmed that HBCUs are among the last colleges to take advantage of the IDS degree program.
“Currently 19 HBCU’s have interdisciplinary studies degrees. FAMU adopted and implemented this degree in Fall 2014. It’s a program that’s recognized not only in the United States but other countries as well,” Langley said.
Langley, a tenured professor in the Department of Social Work, attended the association of interdisciplinary conference, where he encountered people from Amsterdam, Canada, China, and they all had some variation of a IDS program at those institutions.
Initially, the IDS program was intended for those students struggling to complete degrees, who took a break but later returned.
“Most institutions had to use the degree for non-traditional students in the past, who didn’t want to take a particular degree in a particular discipline, but they wanted to create their degree,” Langley said. “Most students don’t know about this degree, particularly here at FAM. We are a quietly kept boom industry on campus.”
The IDS program has done so well assisting students to degree completion that the Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees would like to implement ways for students to meet performance metrics and graduate in four years, which the state is measuring.
“The program has achieved and exceeded the benchmarks that it was set-up for. The performance metric is what dictates the new direction and they are set by the BOG,” Langley said.