Interdisciplinary emphasis in honors program helps students stay ahead in volatile world

The coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and political turmoil have all made the world less predictable. This feeling of uncertainty is reflected in recent data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found that 25 million Americans quit their jobs between January and July 2021, the highest rate in 20 years. Some participants of what has been dubbed “The Great Resignation” have struggled to pivot to new jobs, industries, or even entirely new careers. The Honors Program strives to equip its students with skills and experiences to navigate this type of change, particularly through its emphasis on interdisciplinarity. 

“Honors has always encouraged learning across disciplines,” says Sarah Crawford-Parker, PhD, Director of the Honors Program. “Everyone has faced difficulties in this pandemic, but we’ve also heard from some Honors alumni that their multifaceted studies at KU prepared them to solve new problems in ways they didn’t foresee at the time.”   

The honors program at KU is a university-wide program with participation from students and faculty across disciplines and schools, which helps to foster interdisciplinary connections. In 2021, nearly 30 percent of Honors students graduated with multiple degrees, while 9.6 percent of KU undergraduates overall completed multiple degrees. 2 percent of Honors graduates triple majored. Even more added a minor to their studies.  

Some of these students would undoubtedly pursue these studies on their own, but the Honors Program also actively encourages and supports interdisciplinarity. Carolina Medina, a Junior from Honduras, illustrates this. She began her time at KU as an electrical engineering major but also enrolled in a French class her first semester. She found that the class offered an intellectual balance to math-heavy engineering courses.   

“I was interested in taking it to another level,” Medina said. “I discussed it with my Honors advisor after I took that first class during my first semester, and it turned out to be a minor in the end.”  

Medina was one of several students that co-founded the Interdisciplinary Students Organization. ISO holds weekly meetings for students to discuss opportunities for research across disciplines. They invite speakers from in and outside of the University and are considering hosting a conference in the future. The group operates outside of Honors but has many connections to students, faculty, and staff in the Program.  

“The Interdisciplinary Students Organization started in the middle of the spring 2021 semester. Being included in its founding was truly a bright spot of the whole year for me,” said Katie Batza, PhD, an associate professor in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies and Honors faculty fellow. Batza serves as the faculty advisor to the group. 

“From the astronomy and photography double major to the mechanical engineer with creative writing passions, these were a group of students who wanted to break through the sometimes -rigid disciplinary boundaries imposed by the modern university structure,” she said. 

Honors also frequently connects current students with alumni succeeding at the intersections of multiple disciplines. One example was its signature event held on September 29. A four-person panel discussed their work on issues related to COVID-19, including Andrew Giessel, PhD. Giessel (c’05) earned his degrees in Biochemistry and Computer Science and now serves as the Director of Data Science and Artificial Intelligence at Moderna Therapeutics. He was involved in the testing of the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Another guest speaker was Amanda Shriwise, PhD. Shriwise (c ’09) currently works at the World Health Organization where she co-authored a report on the unequal impacts of COVID-19 throughout different countries. While at KU, Shriwise majored in Dance and minored in both Economics and African Studies. She also completed the pre-med curriculum, although as she advanced in her studies, her focus changed from practicing medicine to addressing social issues, particularly the alleviation of poverty. She went on to pursue a master’s and doctorate in Social Policy from Oxford University. In addition to her work at WHO, she also serves as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Bremen in Germany.  

“I think majoring in Dance made me really comfortable with creative processes,” she said. “That's something that served me well during graduate school and also day-to-day in policy work, particularly during COVID.”  

Shriwise noted that while WHO has many physicians and researchers from the natural sciences, humanities scholars are often underrepresented in public health. Experts in these fields are often better equipped to develop messaging and promote health literacy than their colleagues in STEM fields alone.  

“The real world is interdisciplinary, ultimately. So I've had the opportunity to get a lot of skills and bring that into my work,” Shriwise said. “You don't know what kind of skills you're going to need in the future.” 

Honors plans to continue fostering exploration across different academic disciplines.  

“I truly believe the ability to think across disciplines and schools is critical for ensuring that our students have greatest impact in the world around them,” said Katie Batza.