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New major track wraps up first semester

BY CHRIS HIGGINS | NOVEMBER 12, 2014 5:00 AM

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Despite one setback, University of Iowa students and faculty consider a new major track to be widely successful.

When the Engaged Social Innovation track in the interdepartmental-studies major was first announced last spring, a main component was a partnership with the Las Vegas Downtown Project, an initiative to revitalize the city’s business core.

Students would have had the opportunity to participate over a winter break with free room and board.

However, the partnership has since been severed in the wake of massive layoffs of project staff.

David Gould, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences associate director for student development and former Downtown Project director of imagination, served as the “lynchpin” between the project and the major track.

He wrote an open letter of resignation on Sept. 30, expressing disillusionment with the initiative’s direction.

“It wasn’t catastrophic but more of a realignment of goals,” said Tom Keegan, the head of digital research and publishing for UI Libraries, who also teaches a required course.

The track was first developed after Chaden Djalali, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, expressed a desire to experiment with a “borderless major.”

Students take three required courses and fill the rest of their credit hours in conjunction with a faculty adviser to pursue their particular interests, capped by an extended community-service internship and other community projects.

Keegan said many connections made with businesses involved in the Downtown Project as well as with University of Nevada-Las Vegas faculty remain intact following the loss of the partnership.

Junior Helaina Thompson said she was a bit disappointed by the development but saw a benefit to it as well.

“In a way, that’s exciting that it’s not there anymore, because that was easy,” she said. “That was like, here everything’s sort of planned for you, we have these connections for you, you’re going to work and live in Las Vegas, but now it’s like, whoa, what am I going to do for my semester away?Suddenly, I have this total freedom, scary freedom, to figure out where I want to go make a difference.”

Keegan said there is heavy interest in scouring out winter-break internship projects in Iowa.

Art Spisak, the director of the UI Honors Program, echoed Thompson’s thoughts on student freedom.

“It’s scary, in a sense, that you have that power as a student, but it’s also empowering, and I think that’s what’s exciting about it and useful about it, too,” he said.

Overall, students and faculty alike say they believe the track has been a success, and several new students have applied or expressed interest.

Officials say there is a particular interest in providing hands-on experience.

Current students recently took a trip to a donkey farm with a house built entirely of recycled materials by a local artist.

“A lot of times students are external observers of course content, and so they study it, but they don’t see themselves in it,” Keegan said. “They can’t tell you what it looks like after school ends.”

In one required course, several majors are represented: economics, theatre, English, biology, journalism, and more.

Students have worked on projects including exploring housing for the mentally challenged and figuring out how to best unify ministries in the area.

“I’m having the coolest conversations with the coolest people and just garnering inspiration and ideas for what I want to be doing,” Thompson said.


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