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Room to Roam on the Path to a Degree : Whittier Scholars Plot Own Course

March 24, 1985|STEVEN R. CHURM | Times Staff Writer

WHITTIER — They are described as overachievers who like to take risks and control their own destinies. Senior Chris Marshall contends there is another, less cerebral characteristic shared by those who enroll and excel in Whittier College's Scholars Program:

"You have to be a little crazy."

Marshall, 22, a theater arts major, should know. He recently wrote, scored, staged and conducted a three-hour opera, "The Serpent's Tooth," while taking a full class load at the tiny liberal arts college. The production involved 22 cast members, 150 hours of rehearsals and a $1,000 budget. It was his senior project, a final exam of sorts after four years in the Scholars Program.

"There was a lot of pressure," said Marshall, recalling the hectic week before opening night in late January. "More than once, I said to myself, 'You're crazy, Chris.' But that's the value of the Scholars Program. It pushes you to the brink. In the end, you're a stronger person."

Marshall is the epitome of those drawn to the Scholars Program, an alternative to the traditional and more heavily traveled route to graduation.

Design Own Curriculum

Students design their own curriculum, selecting classes that more closely mesh with their interests and career choices, rather than following a prescribed path of required courses.

The program's freedom is its major selling point, one that lured Marshall west to Whittier College in 1981 after high school in Colorado.

Its reputation also has drawn others to the hillside campus, alma mater of former President Richard M. Nixon. One student even crossed the Atlantic to study math at the college, which was started nearly a century ago by Quakers.

"He's from Paris, and his story is typical," said Richard Archer, a history professor and director of the Scholars Program. "A majority of those in the program are here because of what we've created."

About 10% of the college's 1,000 undergraduates are enrolled in the Scholars Program and the number is growing, Archer said.

Anyone Is Eligible

Any Whittier College freshman or sophomore is eligible; there are no grade requirements to meet. Applicants submit a blueprint for obtaining a degree to a panel of professors, who review the proposed area of study and course list--a package known as a student's "educational design."

Initially, the program attracted mostly sociology and theater arts majors, but business, computer science and pre-med majors are now enrolled.

"This program is kind of out of step with the times," said Archer, 43, one of the forces behind its creation seven years ago.

Ten or 15 years ago the Scholars Program would have been one of many across the country at colleges and universities offering students a chance to plot their own courses to graduation, Archer said. But the experimentation found in college classrooms in the late 1960s and 70s has given way to a more traditional approach.

"Education, like everything else, is cyclical, and the pendulum simply started swinging back toward a more conservative approach," Archer said.

Flexible Curriculum

Whittier College officials, however, believed there was room--and a need--for a more flexible curriculum, one that allowed students room to roam in academe to find their direction.

"Most students want structure," said Richard J. Wood, Whittier College's vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. "But there is a segment of students that is different; they want to make decisions about their curriculum. They want a chance to control their own academic direction."

Cathy Pearce, a 1982 Scholars Program graduate who now coordinates grants for medical research at the University of California, Irvine, agreed:

"For better or worse, I'm an overachiever who likes control. So it wasn't enough for me to sit back and let someone else--the faculty or administration--make decisions for me."

Though flexibility is the program's hallmark, there are strings attached. As the 16-page booklet pitching the program says, "Although it is individualized, it does not support the idea that anything goes."

Senior Project

Like other undergraduates, those in the Scholars Program must complete 120 units to graduate. In addition, students must do a senior project, which is worth a minimum of three units, roughly 150 hours of work. A faculty panel, including Archer, continually reviews a student's curriculum, progress and senior project. Almost any change must be justified and defended before the panel.

"Sometimes, it's like being a specimen under a microscope," said one student in the program. "At times, all this talk about freedom is just an illusion."

Archer concedes that students are monitored closely, a necessity, he argues, because of the independence they are given. About 30 instructors from a cross section of disciplines give time to the program, sitting on review panels and advising students on course choices and direction.

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