University News

One Hill, two degrees: the Brown/RISD experience

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Beth Soucy ’13 had always loved both art and academics, but when she started applying to colleges, her parents advised her to view art as more of a hobby. When she found out about the dual degree program at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, which allows students to live, take classes at and earn a degree from both institutions, “it just made too much sense,” she said.

The highly selective program, now in its third year, is flourishing as more and more students join its ranks each year, looking for an outlet for both their creative and academic energy.

The idea for the program is not a new one. “Faculty at RISD and Brown have been supporting interdisciplinary work for years,” said Stephen Lassonde, deputy dean of the College and co-chair of the program. Before the program’s creation in 2008, four students actually transferred back and forth between the two schools over five years and ultimately earned a degree from each — precisely what students in the dual degree program achieve.

One of these students, Sarah Faux ’08, attended the design school for two years. During her second year, she chose to take her elective liberal arts classes at Brown. “I liked the whole liberal-arts education thing so much that I transferred to Brown for junior year,” Faux wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “But, of course I missed RISD painting classes, which have a unique intensity. So I continued taking my studio art classes at RISD and liberal arts at Brown.”

When Faux graduated from Brown with a history of art and architecture degree, her painting professor suggested she stay one more semester at RISD to earn a second degree there. Faux re-applied to RISD, was admitted and received her degree a semester later. “Basically, I loved what both educations had to offer, and I couldn’t get enough of either,” Faux wrote. “Studying literature and art at Brown fueled my painting practice at RISD and vice versa.”

Mixing disciplines

This is precisely the idea behind the dual degree program and the reason why it is so popular with students. Lizzie Kripke ’14 knew she wanted to study “some sort of visual art” as well as “math and science things,” so she applied to a number of interdisciplinary programs. “This program is really the ideal. Each school is so strong in its respective areas, and you get two degrees, whereas some schools just offer double degrees,” she said. Kripke is now concentrating in neuroscience at Brown and painting at RISD.

For Stephanie Swart ’13, it was a defined interest in the “synthesis of ideas across disciplines” that drove her to apply, she wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. She is currently concentrating in film/animation/video and cognitive science.

The program receives 500 to 600 applications each year, Lassonde said, and 15 to 18 students are ultimately accepted into the program. The applications are considered by two different admissions committees, one at RISD and one at Brown. Applicants accepted by both universities are then reviewed again.

When the program first started, the plan was to expand it to 20 students per year, Lassonde said. But just as the program was beginning, both Brown and RISD experienced significant financial losses. The program requires “a lot of administrative time and attention” since students have “pretty big obstacles to surmount,” Lassonde said, and so administrators chose not to expand yet, though they have not ruled out future expansion.

The number of applicants over the years has been increasing steadily, though not by a lot, Lassonde added. “We don’t need thousands applying. It’s a small, selective group,” he said.

The students in the program are all doing “really well academically,” Lassonde said, with no drop-outs to date.

Two social worlds

The dynamic of the program, it seems, varies widely from year to year, Kripke explained. “It’s such a small group, so it depends on the individuals.”

“The current first years are all very close-knit. It’s like one big friend conglomerate,” she said. In her class year, “we’re all definitely cordial but there are more friend groups — some identify more with RISD and some more with Brown.”

She added, “I’m surprised at how diverse the attitudes are in the program — you might expect everyone to be a type-A personality, but we have a mix of really cool people. … It’s interesting to see everybody interact, to see different interests colliding.”

Swart said her year has mostly remained friends. “Now that we are juniors, everyone pretty much has their own group of friends. But we will still come back together often … it’s somewhat necessary as a ‘support system,’ ” she wrote.

Jon Hills ’13 said it’s largely dependent on where students take the majority of their classes. “Last year, I had just about all of my classes at Brown, so I was here all the time,” he said. “When classes are pretty evenly split in junior year, I find myself dividing my time pretty evenly between the Brown and RISD communities.”

Students in the program live at RISD in their first year and then at Brown in their second year. For their third year, they get to choose where they want to live. “Students have actually split right down the middle” in choosing a campus, Lassonde said.

“Belonging to both campuses is a real concern of ours,” he added. “We want them to feel at home in both.” In this spirit, the program’s administrators are in the process of working out how to encourage students to develop a relationship with both campuses.

Evolving and reviewing

Indeed, the program has evolved in the three years since its start. For example, RISD had originally mandated that students not take any Brown courses in their first year. “But we negotiated with them and persuaded them that (taking first-year classes at Brown) was a good idea,” Lassonde said. “This initial compromise set the tone for negotiations.”

The only issues students have found with the program thus far are logistical ones, arising from the program’s youth — for example, it can be difficult to schedule Brown classes simultaneously with RISD’s Wintersession class schedule, and there are sometimes problems with the dual degree meal plan. But, Hills said, “You deal with it. … It’s nothing too serious.”

In fact, many students enjoy the fact that the program is still in its beginning stages. “Because it’s so new, they … really listen to students in structuring the program,” Kripke said. “We have a very close relationship with all our administrators and advisors. It’s really a community of peers as opposed to people just trying to struggle and grapple their way through.”

Swart expressed a similar opinion.”The program has come a long way with improvements since I was a freshman,” she said.

As the program’s first class of students approach graduation, administrators are working on defining the capstone experience for seniors. “We want it to be a project that expresses that interaction (between campuses),” Lassonde said.

“I love the combination of art and academics and the way that my courses sound off one another and enhance my educational experience,” Soucy said. “Everyone always asks me which school I like better but, at this point, I can’t imagine going to just one.”