Jin Joo Shim couldn't find the perfect major at UAB, so she invented her own. Shim graduated this spring with a degree in International Health—the only one of its kind offered in UAB history.
The unique major included a class on the economics of happiness; a graduate-level course in public health policy; an independent study class that analyzed HIV interventions using game theory; an honors seminar called Law, Ethics, and the Brain; and a service-learning experience helping members of the local community fill out their tax returns.
That unusual combination was a perfect match for Shim, who came to the United States from South Korea at 16 with the goal of eventually working for an international health organization such as UNICEF. “I’m particularly interested in children and children’s health in developing countries,” Shim says—a desire based in part on her own childhood experiences, which involved a lengthy hospital stay after a severe accident.
Being able to mix and match classes from schools all across campus helped her stay focused on her career goal, she says, and definitely set her apart when it came to apply for graduate school. “I certainly had plenty to talk about in my interviews,” Shim recalls. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in biostatistics at Columbia University. “They were very interested in my major,” Shim says. “They had never seen anything like it.”
Shim is one of a growing number of students who have created individually designed majors (IDMs) at UAB in recent years, says advisor Catherine Danielou, Ph.D. “In general, students come up with the original concept on their own,” says Danielou. “Every situation is unique because every IDM is unique and each student’s dream is unique. I personally like to present it as an option to bright, self-motivated students who have a keen interest that doesn’t necessarily fit one of our ‘molds.’ ”
More IDM student stories:
Ingrid Pfau: Environmental Science Filmmaking
Senior Ingrid Pfau aspires to a very specific career niche: environmental science filmmaking. “I want to travel, I want to make films, and I want to conduct scientific research,” Pfau says. Although she originally intended to get a biology degree at UAB and leave moviemaking for graduate school, UAB’s individually designed major option let her focus on her dream as an undergraduate, with coursework including biology, film studies, and anthropology. Pfau hopes to land a job at an organization such as the National Geographic Society—or start an independent filmmaking business with her two sisters. She has already completed a documentary about the endangered watercress darter and several award-winning public service announcements and is now working on films about ocean acidification and the environmental impacts of pilgrimages on Spain’s Camino de Santiago.
Cameron White, Arabic and Finance
Cameron White in the Sinai Peninsula
Cameron White began studying Arabic to fulfill the language requirement for a minor in international business. Before long, he discovered that he had found a new passion. “I realized I couldn’t stop after a few Arabic classes, so I studied abroad in Tunisia hoping it would round out my Arabic education,” says White. “That experience taught me that learning Arabic was more than just learning how to read and write a different language: It was about expanding my view of the world.”
In time, White’s interest in Arabic language and cultural studies became as important as his business classes and led him to create an individually designed major in Arabic and finance. Now a senior, he says his Arabic education is an essential part of his goal of working with the U.S. State Department in the Middle East. “On a practical level, familiarity with Arabic is a good skill to have if you want to work in the Middle East,” he says. “But once I returned from studying in Tunisia, I knew that Arabic was going to be more than a language requirement.”
At UAB, White took classes in Arabic 101 and 102, as well as an individualized course of directed readings and activities covering literature, poetry, music, political identity, language and culture, and the post-colonial development of the Middle East. With that as a foundation, he also took courses at universities in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia. “When studying abroad in top programs such as American University in Cairo, you find yourself predominantly in the company of Ivy League students,” White says. “So it was a way to establish UAB on par with the leading universities in Arabic studies.”
Elise Webster, Children’s Advocacy
When Elise Webster came to UAB, she knew “without a doubt that in my future I would help children in some way.” Her drive was heightened after she took an honors seminar titled Law, Ethics, and the Brain in spring 2009. “During the class, ethical debates about the use of fMRI on children heightened my already intense passion for helping and protecting children,” Webster says. But it wasn’t until her advisor suggested an individually designed major that Webster found her path.
After looking through UAB’s course catalog to choose classes it was clear that it would be “an easy process to accumulate enough hours that formed one cohesive idea”: children’s advocacy. “I actually had difficulty taking classes out because too many interested me,” Webster says. Courses that have made the cut include developmental psychology; social statistics; trial advocacy; and Brain, Mind, and Behavior. The ability to curate one’s own class schedule was a real plus, Webster says. “If I don’t like a particular class, it’s my own fault.”
Webster, who is now a junior, volunteers as an intern with the Step Up After School Program in East Lake, working with third and fourth graders from Barrett Elementary School. “After working with these underprivileged kids, I know that I want to work with children from difficult backgrounds,” she says. Webster is still working through the potential careers that would allow her to meet that goal. One option is teaching; she is also considering graduate school in education, public health, psychology, or law. “I will have to see where my future takes me,” she says, “but I am open to any options that help me achieve my goal of helping children and being a true advocate for their needs.”
Bryant Turner, Sport and Health in Society
Bryant Turner’s dream is to become a strength and conditioning coach for professional athletes. He has plenty of on-the-field experience thanks to his position as a senior defensive end on the UAB football team. But he’s also acquired the classroom training to back it up as UAB’s first student majoring in Sport and Health in Society. Turner says his individually designed major was a perfect fit both with his previous coursework and his interests. “It was exactly what I was looking for,” he explains. “It includes everything that I am interested in.” Turner plans on continuing on to graduate school, but he says he would be happy to leverage his unique undergraduate degree into a position as soon as possible.