Winthrop’s new custom-built study program attracts first group of students

Winthrop University is rolling out a new academic major that school officials say will give students more flexibility in their studies and better preparation for their chosen careers.

Ramona Siegrist, 33, is among the first group of Winthrop students enrolled in the individualized studies program – a custom academic experience designed by the student. The program allows Siegrist to tailor her Winthrop class choices to fit her dream job: starting a nonprofit organization to help victims of human trafficking in the United States and other Western countries.

“I want to be passionate about what I’m doing – I don’t want to do something just because I’m supposed to,” Siegrist said.

That attitude led her to Winthrop’s individualized studies program, she said.

The individualized studies major is rigorous and has already attracted some of the university’s brightest students, says Clara Paulino, program director. The option blends undergraduate research, internships or work experience, study and travel abroad, and classroom hours to create something “truly unique” for students.

When the program’s students graduate, Paulino said, employers will see a job candidate who is not “the same as the student next door.”

Winthrop is the first university in the Southeast to offer a program of this kind and joins several top research schools that have similar individualized majors.

Like some other academic majors at Winthrop, the individualized studies program requires a minimum 3.0 GPA and a written statement of purpose. But, students hoping to join the new program must pick three faculty advisers from a variety of campus departments to guide their class choices.

And, Paulino said, interested students must make a formal presentation to a seven-member academic board to make their case for their chosen classes. Making their case for their unique major is like a mini-master’s thesis pitch.

Siegrist’s presentation focused on her plan to start a nonprofit. To reach her goal, she’s chosen Winthrop classes on women’s studies, global politics, sociology and entrepreneurship.

A bonus “cool factor” to Winthrop’s individualized studies major, she said, is that students get to name their program. Siegrist’s major is called “International Women’s Welfare and Entrepreneurship.”

Students in the program graduate with a bachelor of arts degree. Siegrist also has chosen two minors: math and peace, justice and conflict resolution.

The new program, she said, is like a real-life example of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series, which was popular reading for children in the 1980s and ’90s.

As a child, she had those books, and she always went back to read all the options instead of choosing just one. Now, her college experience is similar, she said.

A non-traditional student, Siegrist arrived at Winthrop with nearly enough math class credits to graduate. When she enrolled, she already had a few years of college already under her belt.

She first started college after high school in New York with a plan to major in math. In her last semester there, she abruptly changed her focus to studio art. But, eventually she dropped out, Siegrist said.

She picked up school again last year when she started classes at Winthrop – again with the goal of earning a math degree.

This time, she planned to graduate and land a job using her math skills. While working, she said, she figured she could save enough money to start her nonprofit.

Then, she realized, “Wait a second: I can actually major in what I want to do.”

She began thinking about her individualized studies which she describes as “a business major with a social concentration.” She plans to graduate in the spring or summer of 2016.

Paulino advises students to apply for Winthrop’s individualized studies program during the last semester of their sophomore year. So far, a small number of students have joined, she said, but all have chosen interesting career paths.

Most of the current students have incorporated entrepreneur skills into their chosen studies. Besides Siegrist’s women’s welfare work, other topics include: art history with business courses for a student who wants to buy and sell art, and sports and physical wellness with psychology courses for a student who wants to specialize in women’s body image.

Studies have shown high employment chances for students who choose individual studies options at schools across the country, Paulino said.

For Winthrop, the new program shows that “there’s no limit” on a student’s dreams or career goals,” Paulino said.

“More and more,” she said, “things are connected. We realize that people have skills from many different areas.”