One CUNY BA student shares his story of individualized study By Gregory Cagle
Success is subjective. For many years, people considered me a success story. I had a career in the recording industry that many envied. I worked with the executive teams that groomed great artists like Maxwell, Nas, Lil Kim, Ginuwine, EnVogue, SWV, Outkast and 3LW. The travel, perks and money were great, so I didn’t complain.
Still, I didn’t always feel successful partly because I never finished college. I started my career as an intern in the early 2000s at the height of the music business when artists were selling in the multi-millions and never looked back. But years later, when I set my sights higher — on a better position at a different company — my career stalled. I was smart, driven and experienced but because I had no degree I did not get the position. I decided to fix that and made a plan to go back to Hunter College and finish the work I started over 13 years ago.
But with my profile, I wasn’t a typical student. College degrees are very specialized, so where did a person like me with the background and skills I have fit? Should I study media? Or marketing? Or just business?
After casting around and feeling frustrated, I learned about the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies, which allows students to work directly with CUNY faculty to design a curriculum made to fit their academic, professional, and personal interests and earn an individualized degree. You can pick and choose courses at any combination of CUNY colleges, and use internships, independent study, on-line courses, study abroad, honors courses, graduate level courses, credit by exam and life experience credit in pursuit of your degree. Some majors include Cinema Studies/Elements of Mathematics, entertainment technology/theatre, Cinema Studies/Elements of Mathematics and Globalization, Sustainability and Health.
I decided to become a double major in Media/Entertainment Marketing and Journalism. I have taken courses at City College, Lehman, BMCC, and La Guardia and at Hunter, my home college. Next semester I plan to enroll in classes at Baruch and NYC College of Technology in Brooklyn.
CUNY established this program in 1971 in response to professors and students who believed that the University should allow individual faculty and students to define programs of study. About 350 to 400 students, both full-time and part-time, are enrolled. Over half are women, people of color and over the age of 24.
Khadijah Cole, CUNY BA recruiter, explains that the program allows for flexible, creative fields of study. “This gives students many options with specific interest,” Cole explains. “I have never seen so many different new degrees that make sense, like medical illustration, Arab studies/Human Rights, United Nations studies/Diplomacy, Journalism and Religious studies.”
This dynamic program at first glance might not be for everyone. You have to be organized and assertive and sometimes fight for classes. Alvin Gibson, 23, a criminology/psychology major and new to the program, is trying hard to find his footing in the CUNY maze. “I got approved for e-permits but still did not get all the classes I actually wanted,” he says. “I am sitting in a class more worried about that instead of my assignments. I didn’t really have a choice in picking class times also so I took what I could get and am sticking it out.”
Paying for school can be even more challenging, especially with CUNYfirst and the FACTS system in the mix. “The program is a hidden gem, but they need to fix the problems with the financial aid,” says Davis, a CUNY BA student who majors in mathematics and accounting, and asked that his full name not be used. “The administration needs to work on making sure that everyone and the system is on the same page. Other than that I am extremely happy about my choice of applying.”
I agree and fully understand the frustrations that can come with the CUNY BA. But if you can deal with the financial aid glitches and cope with traveling for classes throughout CUNY, the program is worth it. The key is to stay on course.
I will be finished and graduating in two semesters. I received a Thomas Smith Fellowship scholarship thanks to a GPA of 3.8. After graduation, I plan is to revisit interviewing to work at one of the big six media companies. With my “unique” degree in hand along with my experience, I believe that the future will be pretty bright.