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Interdisciplinary Programs to Prepare Students for Life after Kenyon

By Lili Martinez

Two new academic programs are hoping to broaden the horizons of Kenyon students this semester, while preparing them for a changing world after graduation. Environmental studies is in the process of transitioning from a concentration to a major, and Latino/Latina studies is now a concentration.

The Latino/a studies concentration will be interdisciplinary, with a language requirement and studyabroad option, much like the recently added Islamic Civilizations and Cultures concentration.

Environmental studies will be a combined major, meaning that students who choose this major will also choose a second major in a related department and work with both to complete a single senior exercise.

The proposal for the environmental studies major has benefited greatly from the existence of the Asian studies major, another “combined major,” according to Professor of Biology M. Siobhan Fennessy. “Having Asian studies as a model has been helpful because it’s a nice way … to have a lot of breadth within a major and still enable students to get a lot of depth in a single discipline,” Fennessy said.

While effectively requiring environmental studies majors to double major is not the traditional model, Fennessy said it was a useful compromise to prepare students for specializing in the real world. “Only majoring in environmental studies is sometimes seen as a problem. You don’t get a lot of expertise in any one discipline, and that’s really a disadvantage, I think, when you leave here,” she said.

Hopeful environmental studies majors will have to choose another major with a related topic, such as economics, anthropology or biology, and complete the requirements for both majors. “Biology is interested [in collaborating], and we are hoping a lot of other departments will as well,” Fennessy said.

The new Latino/a studies concentration will allow first years, sophomores and even juniors to begin concentrating by taking any of six core courses listed in the new course catalog to be published next year. Five departments are represented within these courses: Spanish, English, psychology, art and history. Concentrators will need to take 2.5 total units of classes that focus on Latino/a culture and society, as well as a year of Spanish or its equivalent.

Thea Kohout ’14, one of the first declared Latino/a studies concentrators, said she decided to pursue the concentration because of her upbringing in Austin, Texas. “Growing up, my parents were involved in nonprofits that serviced Latinos or immigrants, and it made sense for me to concentrate because I want to do something similar with my life, and to be able to have something physical on my transcript for that is great,” she said.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Irene Lopez, who worked with Professor of Spanish Clara Roman-Odio and other professors in the process of imagining and creating the concentration, emphasized that the concentration will link Latino/a studies at Kenyon to a national discussion of the largest minority group in the country.

Some classes, like Lopez’s Latino Psych course, will integrate service learning into the class requirements so that students can get credit for their service. “This is actually something I’ve done in my other classes, and what I find is that students are typically really excited about getting involved with service because a lot of our students are doing service anyway,” Lopez said. “So it’s really neat to have service actually count towards a course.”

Students can then take what they have learned doing service outside of the classroom and use it to enrich classroom discussions. “A really common motif when students get involved in service is they may begin to think about class differently,” Lopez said. “We talk about these things in the classroom, but it’s very different to go to a social service agency and really see these gender differences. The idea would be for students to do it, write about it and then bring it into the classroom for further analysis.”

Roman-Odio wants the concentration to showcase both the past and present realities of Latinos/as. “The hope is that students will gain analytical and critical skills not only to understand the diverse histories of Latinos/as in the U.S. but also to appreciate Latinos/as as significant actors in the global and national history,” Roman-Odio said.

Lopez hopes the service learning component of the concentration will bring students down from Kenyon’s “ivory tower.” “You can talk about culture, you can talk about class, you can talk about socioeconomic status and have these really rich abstract conversations in a beautiful classroom in Gambier, Ohio and it just doesn’t feel real,” Lopez said. “I’ve been trying to think of ways to give students opportunities that they, in fact, design. They can take those rich experiences into the classroom, so that our conversations can be that much more advanced.”

The spread of globalization and the bicultural nature of the U.S. make this concentration all the more important, Roman-Odio said. “Given current demographic changes, Latino/as are influencing the life and the future of this country,” she said. “This concentration will enable students to gain an understanding of the histories of this population and their relationship to local and global movements.”

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