At MC, Smaller Majors Pack a Punch

Manhattan College lists its most popular majors as civil engineering, communications, management, childhood education and biology. But what about the other few thousand students on campus?

Students enrolled in smaller major programs on campus find that they are having very different experiences than their peers who have declared a major with a higher enrollment. But with each smaller program comes its own unique strengths, offerings to students and struggles to make a presence on a campus where big name programs can sometimes dominate the conversation.

Physics major Dylan Gray said that his time in the physics department has been very positive and attributes it to the level of student-teacher interaction that he gets as a member of one of the smallest majors on campus.

“It makes for such a better experience because it honestly makes things easier,” he wrote in an email. “That communication in education is very important.”

Gray is one of just 12 physics majors at the college, making it one of the smallest majors available to students.

Religious studies and communications double major Jessica Frost, who graduated just this winter, said that having two majors showed her just how different a smaller major program like religious studies is.

Photo by Kevin Fuhrmann

“It’s a very individualized experience in a smaller major,” she said. “In communications, it’s very structured.”

Frost said that religious studies faculty helped tailor her major to her interests, especially the intersection between sociology, communications and religion which she investigated in her honors thesis on spirituality in the hit TV series Grey’s Anatomy.

“They kind of let you do what you want with it,” she said. She also said the faculty members were there to guide and shape her course of study. “The religion department are like powerhouse researchers. They’re always there and trying to see what you’re interested in.”

Despite some students’ highly-reviewed experiences as majors in these smaller or lesser-known programs, these majors still maintain relatively low enrollments year after year.

Department of Radiological and Health Professions director Laurence Hough said that low enrollment may not be a reflection of the program itself, but of the size of the field. Hough oversees the nuclear medicine, radiation therapy and radiation technology majors which graduate roughly 10 students per major each year.

“These types of programs are always small because they are very small fields,” Hough said. “I would say there are probably more accountant jobs in the island of Manhattan than there are radiation therapy jobs in the entire nation.”

For smaller majors in the School of Arts, the problem can sometimes be just the opposite. Students who can’t link a specific job or career path with a major may be less likely to major in it at all.

“The challenge of increasing our majors is that many students are unaware, not through their own fault of course, of what they can do with a religious studies major,” Michele Saracino, Ph.D. and religious studies major director wrote in an email. “We find that students love our courses and respect our professors but are not sure what a religious studies major might lead to, and in today’s day and age that is a very important question.”

Timothy Ward, Ph. D and dean of the School of Engineering said that the engineering program has grown in recent years. He said that he believes the strong job prospects for engineering graduates have contributed to the program’s growth. The School of Engineering now contains the biggest major on campus, civil engineering.

Students who come to the college with those kinds of specific career goals or pre-professional tracks in mind may overlook the smaller liberal arts programs as a route to a career.

Mitchell Aboulafia, Ph.D and director of the philosophy major, said that students at the college are typically not exposed to philosophy or know what it really is until they take a philosophy class, which may be in their junior or senior year and be too late to declare a major. He also said students are not aware that philosophy is excellent preparation for a variety of careers.

“A lot of majors in philosophy go into law school,” Aboulafia said. “Philosophy students have some of the highest test scores. The problem we face is that students come to college and they don’t really know about philosophy. Most kinds don’t think about it.”

Director of Career Development Rachel Cirelli said that these smaller liberal arts and science programs can help develop skills in students that can then be transferrable to a variety of jobs.

“Major does not dictate what you’re going to do when you graduate,” Cirelli said. “Leadership qualities, general writing skills, general presentation skills, organization skills, program management, and things like that you are really going to need when you graduate.”

She said that extracurricular involvement, doing well academically and internships will help secure a job after graduation.

“They’re really looking for the mark you made on campus and what you did outside of the classroom,” Cirelli said.

In other more specialized fields of study, program directors say it is difficult to build up interest in these majors because of how technical or focused they are.

Physics and radiological and health professions are two departments whose sizes are dictated by the small, focused groups of students they attract.

“Physics is not a large major at most institutions,” Liby wrote in an email. “It is a very difficult discipline that does not appeal to everyone. People don’t understand what physicists do. I think if more students appreciated the creativity, vision and intelligence required to be successful they might be more interested.”

Liby also wrote that, “typically students know they want to be majors before they come to Manhattan. We don’t get many students transferring from other departments.”

Hough said that students who declare radiological and health professions majors are career-oriented and are there because they are interested.

“When I have my nuclear medicine students in class, it’s a pleasure,” Hough said. “Because they’re all very focused and very interested in becoming a technologist.”

What unites some of the smaller major programs on campus is their lack of exposure to the wider campus community that could lead to attracting more majors. In response, some program directors are engaged in outreach and publicity initiatives to draw in curious students to learn more about these majors.

Peace Studies program director Thomas Ferguson wrote that the Peace Studies major has a strong relationship with Just Peace, a student-run activism organization on campus. In conjunction with other campus departments and groups, Peace Week is held every year on campus to bring the community lectures and events on current issues.

“Peace week also serves to highlight the major, as does its sponsorship of related events throughout the school year,” Furguson wrote in an email.

The philosophy department, which most students are not exposed to until they possibly take a philosophy course as a humanities elective as upperclassmen, is looking to increase its class offerings for underclassmen with the hope of drawing in both more majors and minors.

“I think philosophy would have a lot more appeal if they were exposed to it,” Aboulafia said. “Philosophy is trying very concretely now to offer more classes directly to freshman so that hopefully more people take a couple of classes.”

He also said that the department is trying to persuade the college to add an ethics or philosophy requirement to the core curriculum. Local schools such as Iona College, Fordham University and Columbia University all require at least one philosophy course as part of their core curriculums.

While philosophy isn’t yet a core requirement, religious studies is. Every Manhattan College student must take three courses in religion to graduate, so the department finds that exposure or even low class enrollments aren’t the problem. Convincing students to pursue the major is.

“As a result over the past few years our faculty has become more intentional about communicating the paths one can take with [religious studies],” Saracino wrote in an email. “We attempt to show that a student of religious studies will learn how to think more critically about local and global concerns, write more persuasively, and lead more effectively than their counterparts in other disciplines.”

Saracino wrote that the department is focusing on organizing socials and colloquims to help students better understand opportunities with religious studies. With the launch of the Religion Matters program, the department will also be rolling out a series of events that will serve the same purpose and show the effects of religion on everyday life.

While these programs are looking to Manhattan College students to spread the word, the physics major is conducting outreach to high school students interested in physics. With outreach programs for high school students conducted throughout the year by Veronique Lankar, Ph.D, the department looks to increase interest in physics among potential future physics majors.

Photo by Kevin Fuhrmann

“The faculty in general are usually available for any high school student who is interested,” Liby wrote in an email.

Just as these smaller major faculty are getting involved on and off campus to promote their major, they said their small major classes help them get more involved in the guidance and learning of their students.

“The upper level classes are not large. There’s a lot of ability to spend time with professors, a lot of personalized attention,” Aboulafia said. “The biggest advantage is probably the connection between the faculty and the student.” He also said that each philosophy student is assigned an advisor in the department to help tailor their program of study to their interests.

“It’s a very personal interaction,” Hough said of his nuclear medicine classes. “It’s a very enjoyable experience for everybody.”

This connection makes these small classes places of both academic challenge and support.

“This allows us to challenge the students in a supportive atmosphere. We always have time for our majors,” Liby said.

Physics student Gray agrees.

“I know that if I am having trouble I can see the professor and even get a little leeway on due dates,” Gray wrote in an email. “There is a lot of care coming from the department. They want you to do well.”