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Dual degree students forge their own path

Administrators discuss the program’s developments since it began five years ago

Bringing together concentrations as varied as haute couture and computing, the first class of Brown-RISD Dual Degree program students will be graduating this May. After five years, these students will leave College Hill this spring with both a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from RISD.

The program has been changing ever since this year’s senior class arrived in 2008 , and its feedback has contributed to the program’s evolution, administrators said.

“I think we’ve been learning a lot from this first class,” said Michele Zager, the dual degree advising assistant. “They’ve really had the opportunity to sculpt the program.”

Students reside at RISD for the first year while they take foundation classes,  but in the past few years, they have also been able to take one class at Brown — usually a first-year seminar. Students transition to Brown residence halls for the second year, though they take at least one RISD studio class during this time. For the last three years of the program, students move between the two schools. Seniors will complete independent study projects that culminate in capstone presentations.

While this is the first official class of the dual degree program, these students are not the first to complete two degrees from both schools. Before the program’s creation, several students were already pursuing degrees at Brown and RISD by “transferring in and out” of both schools, said Stephen Lassonde, deputy dean of the college and co-chair of the Brown-RISD Dual Degree program. Three of those students, Andrew Bearnot Brown ’09 RISD ’10, Alice Costas ’09 and Sarah Faux ’08 served as advisers to the first dual degree class in 2008.

Students can choose their concentrations and majors based on  their interests. Current seniors are pursuing combinations as varied as Comparative Literature and Graphic Design, Religious Studies and Printmaking and Biochemistry and Industrial Design.

Jonathan Hills ’13 plans to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree from Brown, which Lassonde and Zager said was not recommended when the program first began. Concentrating in mechanical engineering at Brown and furniture design at RISD, Hills said he thinks it isn’t difficult to earn an ScB within the dual degree program.



Seniors in the program noted the benefits of receiving an education from two prestigious schools at once.

“(The students) have an opportunity to explore a really rigorous intellectual inquiry that they experience at their courses at Brown, along with a very immersive studio experience at RISD,” said Patricia Philips, interim associate provost for academic affairs at RISD and co-chair of the Brown-RISD dual degree program.

Dual degree students can apply what they learn at Brown to what they do at RISD, especially through independent studies, said Alison Rutsch ’13, a student in the program.

“I feel like my Brown classes have offered me more critical social perspective, which is lacking at RISD … in terms of gender, class, race,” Rutsch said.

Courses at Brown complement the students’ intended career paths, which they identify early on in their RISD education, said Caitrin Watson ’13, who is studying environmental studies and apparel design.

“You have to find this identity that is not available anywhere else, through any other path that already exists. Your identity is formed by this in-between spot, which is a combination of two things,” said Stephanie Swart ’13.


A balancing act 

Dual degree students benefit from connecting with students from both schools, said Beth Soucy ’13.

“It’s really hard to meet people outside your daily routine … so being able to come into contact with people in both worlds and learn from them is probably my favorite thing,” Swart said.

Students also developed close connections with other members of the program, Swart said.

“It’s a kind of special bond,” Swart said. “I feel like I’ll always have a special understanding with other dual degree students.”

But being a student at more than one school can be socially straining as well, as dual degree students stay a year longer than their peers at either school.

“There are a lot of difficult social aspects,” Rutsch said. After forming friendships during her first year at RISD, “being taken out of that environment and placed into an entirely new school without all of the friends you just made is really tough,” she said.

Scheduling conflicts can also be an inconvenience for students. Since RISD classes are longer than Brown classes and do not always meet on coinciding days, creating cohesive schedules is akin to completing a puzzle, several students said. RISD also has a winter session, while Brown operates on a semester schedule, which they said makes January a difficult time for housing and meals.

Pulling off this kind of program takes a lot of cooperation and patience on the students’ part, as well as advising and negotiation from both schools. The students have to find a way to balance the rigor of the RISD curriculum and the “free-form nature” of Brown’s classes, Philips said.

“There are drawbacks to spreading yourself across two institutions. You don’t get the same immersion in either school that you would get if you were only (attending) one,” Rutsch said.


Finishing touches 

In their final semester, many students are working on degree projects or independent coursework to tie together everything they have studied and prepare for their professional pursuits following graduation.

“It’s scary to finally have to go and get a job. But it’s also really exciting,” Soucy said.

Rutsch is working on a project interviewing kids in Providence public schools and creating artwork out of her findings. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to work up to this point in terms of reaching out and making connections,” she said. Swart said she is also enjoying the opportunity to “do (her) own thing” this semester.

Fifth-year dual degree students on the job hunt said it would be preferable to get a job that combines their two passions, though they would take a job in either field.

“The first job you get out of college is not necessarily significant or meaningful,” Lassonde said.  The dual degree students must “be nimble and open to letting other things happen and take advantage of those opportunities.”

The students of the dual degree class of 2013 will leave a mark on both schools as the first-ever graduates of the program.

“I think that I learned a lot more from this program than I would have if it had been (already) established,”  Soucy said. “We had to take charge of our education really early on ... that really enriched my education,” she said.


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