Sophomores must declare their concentrations by today, so they have probably scrolled at least once or twice through the list of 46 official Harvard College concentrations. But they won’t see on that list a host of subjects their peers have studied—concentrations like Understanding Terrorism, Neuroeconomics, Silk Road Studies, and even the esoteric field of Esoteric Studies.
Those are all special concentrations, and they help accommodate students with trouble choosing one of Harvard’s existing programs of study.
Some special concentrators combine two distinct fields, like Biology and International Policy, to create an integrated plan of study. But most use the special concentration program as a route to a more conventional major not offered at Harvard, like theater, urban planning, or architecture.
PERMISSION TO BE DIFFERENT
It takes a special kind of student to pick a special concentration.
“We’re looking for an independence of spirit,” says Deborah D. Foster, the director of studies of the special concentrations program. “It takes a fairly mature and clear-minded student.”
To select those students, the program relies on a rigorous application process, which includes a statement of purpose, a proposed plan of study, and a departmental back-up plan in case the special concentration falls through. Applicants must also seek out a faculty advisor and tutorial instructor to endorse their program.
“It takes a lot of persistence, and figuring out how to inspire confidence in your advisors,” says Margaret C. Kerr ’13, a special concentrator in Dramatic Theory and Practice. “When you’re first going through the process, there’s a bit of resistance” from administrators, she says.
Each year, Foster meets with 40 to 50 students who express interest in a special concentration, many of whom eventually choose a pre-existing concentration. Though there is no limit on the number of special concentrators each year, the admissions process is highly selective. Proposals are reviewed by a committee of thirteen professors and lecturers from a variety of disciplines.
“The student must show how their courses relate to each other,” says Foster, who adds that special concentrations must not be pre-professional, in keeping with Harvard’s focus on a liberal arts education.
For better or worse, the institutional hurdles likely lead some students to talk themselves out of crafting their own majors before they even consult with potential advisors. But many find the rigorous process and stringent requirements useful, causing them to more thoughtfully craft their concentrations.
“I think that being a special concentrator can be really difficult, and rightly so, the administration wants to funnel you into one of their mainstream channels,” says Lilla D. Cosgrove ’12, who is concentrating in Urban Studies. “It’s easier for everyone.”
Khin-Kyemon Aung ’14 plans to apply next semester for a special concentration on the role of faith in medical treatment and recovery, despite efforts by some to discourage her from doing so.
“There are those who recommended it and very many people who have dissuaded me, saying that I won’t have the best support system and could easily get lost,” Aung says.
“Is there something special about special concentrators?” Foster asks. “Not necessarily, except that they’re willing to search their mind, go through a rigorous application process, and be their own structure.”
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