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hristina Gray does not fit into easy categories, a fact she realized as a painfully shy student in her multi-racial junior high school in Los Angeles. "I remember looking out over this vast sea of people at lunch and asking myself: If this were Nazi Germany and I were being persecuted as a Jew, how many classmates would actually help me? Probably very few. How many would take the opportunity to be awful to me? Probably most, even though I could almost have fitted into that culture's 'Aryan' stereotype."
As she told this story Christina was sitting not in a junior-high cafeteria surrounded by potential tormenters, but in the Campus Center Graduate Lounge surrounded by chapters of her senior thesis on the roots of genocide in medieval Europe. The thesis was written under the aegis of BDIC: the university's "Bachelor's Degree with Individual Concentration" program. The project had brought together elements of literature and myth, of sociology, psychology and history. It ends with a retelling of the folk tale of Bluebeard. The thesis is not typical of BDIC projects, and Christina is not a typical BDIC student. But that's just the point: there is no typical BDIC student. A BDIC poster delivers the message graphically: a creature that combines a flamingo and a fish inquires, "Are you one of a kind too?"
It was March and Christina Gray had a cold, which made her blue-eyed, pre-Raphaelite paleness even more pronounced. Her curly reddish-blonde hair was pulled back into a short ponytail. She sat up very straight, looking every inch the serious dancer she is when she has time. Her musings on the Holocaust were far from merely fanciful; her paternal grandfather, a German Jew, escaped his home country as a young man, just before the war, just in time. And her own young life has already been touched with terrible directness by violence. "My high school had gangs, there were guns and drugs," she said. "And one of my friends was killed by a serial rapist." Yet her attitude is neither fearful nor gloomy; rather it is hopeful, optimistic. Though she's loved the intense focus her research has brought, her future, she believes, lies in political action. She has already worked with grassroots environmental groups and with an arms control organization begun by Nobel laureate Oscar Arias. And last summer she took part in a conference in Stockholm on the former Yugoslavia. Her aims are large and constructive and long-term: "I'd eventually like to see those kids I grew up with living in a better place."
BDIC, founded twenty-five years ago for students who want to pursue interests that do not fit neatly into departmental course-requirements, offers highly motivated students like Christina Gray a chance to invent their own interdisciplinary majors. Some people have called it "Hampshire-with-structure," alluding to the private college down the road where all students create their own educational plans. There are similarities with Hampshire, but the great difference with the UMass program is that BDIC students must justify their move outside traditional departmental constraints and supports. And they must still fulfill the university's extensive general-education requirements. In addition, BDIC has many requirements of its own. This is not an escape route from academic rigor; on the contrary, it is a particularly rigorous path. Think of it as bushwhacking your way up the mountain rather than following the well-marked trail.
Adam Lavine, who completed his degree in Educational Computer Animation in 1991, calls the BDIC program, "one of the great hidden treasures at UMass." Adam is nothing if not practical; if Christina's aim in life is to do good, Adam can certainly be said to be doing well. Specular, the computer software company he co-founded in South Amherst, was sold last April to a California firm, MetaCreations, Inc., in a $6 million deal. In June, Lavine moved to the MetaCreations' New Jersey offices as its new director of product development.
Interviewed in his Amherst offices a few weeks before the formal announcement of the sale, Lavine was cheerfully in control of things. A quick stroll around Specular, which occupied the whole of a small retail mall, revealed the informal and irreverent atmosphere of post-collegiate whiz-kids at work. Lavine's office had a door, but the rest of the company's thirty-five employees occupied a maze of carpet-walled cubicles from which, at their multiple computers, they were busy designing, refining, marketing and distributing new 3-D animation programs. During its seven years of existence, Specular software was been used for title animations for the Academy Awards, logo animations for Citibank, special effects for network TV, movies, and ads. In addition, Specular programs allowed ordinary people and companies to design their own web sites.
Specular's goal of helping people "blend custom ingredients" is a lot like what BDIC offers students. For his purposes and during his time on campus, says Lavine, available programs in computing lagged far behind current developments, with "people vigorously trying to waste your time learning computer languages no one was using anymore." BDIC let him follow his interests, "cherry-picking" courses from all over the Five Colleges. He found that "any good teacher would let you into a course if you kept showing up, if you were a genuinely interested student." He took art courses to sharpen his visual skills, education courses to learn how to teach others what he knew, courses in 3-D graphics and animation. He also took English courses because he enjoyed them "especially Shakespeare and the good modernists." And he took some extra time, completing his degree in both English and BDIC in five years.
"I give a lot of credit to [program coordinator] Susan Machala and [former assistant director] Thelma Canale-Parola," says Lavine. "They helped you craft your curriculum and put the right spin on it. Thelma was able to keep so many boats afloat. She could slice right through the red tape. She was pure gold." Machala is now on leave until January, and Canale-Parola last year's Advisor of the Year at UMass retired in June. But both of them worked for many years out of the BDIC offices in the basement of Bartlett Hall, an improbably cheerful and sunny suite full of slightly worn furnishings and aged oriental-style rugs that suggest a comfortable country inn rather than a departmental office. The new director of the program, professor of Spanish and Portuguese Jose Ornelas, hopes to keep the "friendly, homely atmosphere where students feel welcome;" he also hopes to streamline the paperwork. Make no mistake about it, there is plenty of structure in BDIC. It's not easy to do this major, says Machala. Students need extra motivation because it's more work, more trouble.
This year BDIC has about 200 majors; as of last spring, about a third of them were focusing on social issues, a trend that Susan Machala describes as "thrilling" in the 1990s, when so many people are mainly "looking at their pocketbooks." Advising is a crucial first step in designing one's own major; next is the writing of a curriculum proposal, at least six error-free pages detailing goals, objectives, and a list of courses that will fulfill them. BDIC students need to find faculty advisors; they are also encouraged to contact professionals in the fields they hope to enter. (Among other benefits, this is a route to potential internships, which many BDIC students seek out.) Students must have at least a 2.0 to qualify, an average that often jumps when they find out what they're interested in. They must make a commitment of four consecutive semesters. They must specify and complete at least twelve upper-division courses, drawn from two or more departments, related to their majors. And they must write constantly evaluating and clarifying what they're doing, in a junior-year report, a senior-year summary and abstract, a two-credit senior research paper.
Professor Ervin Staub of psychology was on Christina Gray's honors committee and has bee an important guide in her intellectual growth. Staub, who has studied the roots of both violence and altruism, found Gray's interests "tremendously consistent" with his own. He also found her, like other BDIC students he has known, "a very self-directed person with a vision," a person "able to step outside an assignment and take initiative." This kind of drive is something special, he says, and it is the very quality that BDIC is there to harness.
"We work with the square pegs who wouldn't fit into the round holes," says Machala. "We offer the spirit, not the letter of the law, in a stucture that encourages weaker students to shape up, and frees the best students to fly.
Some of the ducks in BDIC'S row
A few current projects suggest the range of BDIC student interest:
A film on the immigrant experience by a former "boat person."
A paper on the iconography of a medieval Spanish manuscript.
A paper on Hillary Rodham Clinton's image in the media.
A thesis on the Holocaust in Greece.
A thesis on a micro-lending program for women in Bangladesh.
A presentation at a conference on the social construction of whiteness.
A medical and anthropological examination of holistic health.
An internship with a Nicaraguan women's collective.
Assisting with a needle exchange program in Northampton.
Bringing together different generations through dance.