One of a Kind: Interdisciplinary students make degrees their own

Wesley Brunson

Wesley Brunson Degree emphasis: Science and Technology, Culture, and Sustainability CCE Scholarship: Fibiger Award 

For Inter-College Program (ICP) student and Fibiger Award scholarship recipient Wesley Brunson, spending 8-10 hours a day on a bicycle may not be the best way to "boot camp" back into shape, but it was definitely the perfect hands-on experience to add to his degree plan.

Brunson, who is studying the relationship and interplay between science and technology, culture, and sustainability through the ICP, spent the fall semester cycling 6,500 kilometers from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Lima, Peru, via EatBikeGrow as part of a directed study program. Many of his supplies and equipment needs were covered through his Fibiger Award.

Led by U professor Paul Porter (College of Food, Agriculture, and Nutrition Sciences), Brunson and two other undergraduate students travelled across the diverse South American agroecosystems in order to look at how humans are using the landscape to produce food, fiber, and fuel.

"I bought my bike--and clipless pedals--not long before we left (about two months), so I got some training rides in, but... Well, after a couple weeks of riding all day, you get in shape pretty quickly. Adventure is always good," Brunson says with a laugh about his trip.

A few days (or weeks) of "adjusting" to a bike was a small sacrifice in exchange for the experience, Brunson believes, and it fits perfectly with his academic interests. "Sustainability isn't a topic you can view from one angle. It's an interdisciplinary problem, which is why I wanted an interdisciplinary degree.

"My main area of interest is in understanding the role science and technology have played in human sociocultural development, and how best to use these technologies in a more sustainable way in the future," he says.

While in South America, Brunson researched the different types of agriculture the group came across, and worked on building a vocabulary of terms and expressions that the native Spanish speakers there used to describe sustainability issues.

"Sustainable agriculture is a way of feeding the world's population without exhausting the earth's natural resources in the process. This issue is both a global and local concern. I think sustainable agriculture can be achieved only when there is a balance between a large-scale, global agricultural approach and bottom-up grassroots effort. This trip was a great way to experience that."

Continues Brunson, "I was basically on the bike for about 8-10 hours every day. Along the way, I did my best to speak with any people I encountered. At first, my Spanish was limited, but I tried to engage them in a conversation about whatever it is they were doing, especially if it was agriculturally related, and especially if it was sustainable. It was a unique opportunity to get out into the field, really talk with people.

"Sustainable agriculture is a hot topic these days, and this trip has given me an opportunity to experience it firsthand. I don't think I would have been able to make this study abroad experience work for me academically without the help of the Fibiger Award and the flexibility of the ICP program."

Amy Donlin

Amy Donlin Degree concentrations: Arts and Humanities; Applied, Technical, and Professional Studies; History and Social Sciences. 

Sometimes, fate sneaks up and surprises you when you are looking the other way... or at least it did for Multidisciplinary Studies (MdS) student Amy Donlin.

While dropping off her daughter Piper at Bailey Hall for her freshman year in 2009, an advertisement for the College of Continuing Education's interdisciplinary degree programs caught Donlin's eye.

"I was at the point where I realized I had to finish my degree to get the kind of job I wanted in my field. I was a single mom, caregiver to my own mother, with a daughter just starting college...I needed a good job, with benefits, and for that I needed a degree. But I hadn't found one that really allowed me to combine my interests into something that would work for me," she says.

"But then, dropping Piper off, there was that sign. I attended the info session, met a whole tableful of great people, and knew instantly I had found my home."

Through the multidisciplinary studies program, Donlin was able to craft a degree plan that encompassed her interests in art, natural history, ecology, and sustainability, with the end goal of working full-time as a naturalist and environmental educator. It's a career that up until now, she has only been able to do on a part-time basis.

"I work as a summer naturalist at Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Lake, and have been working at nature centers for most of the last decade," she says. "But to get a full-time job in this field is exceptionally difficult. Jobs are few and far between, with most opportunities being seasonal, or part-time, like I've been working. And without a degree...I've not been in any position to compete.

As the daughter of conservationist and waterfowl management pioneer Art Hawkins, Donlin grew up in a family with strong ties to the outdoors, a passion that shaped all of their lives--as well as the lives of their children. Donlin's two siblings went on to become a waterfowl biologist and a U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger. Daughter Piper is studying environmental science policy management through the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Science.

"It's in my blood," she says. "I just love this job--being able to mentor kids, help get them into nature. It's great to be able to expose youth to something that they might not have at home or in school. We roll up our sleeves and pant legs and go looking for tadpoles in the puddles. We find pictures in the clouds, learn how to use scientific methods to understand the world.

"Whether you're an adult or a kid, Tamarack is such a happy, spirited place. It's a place where people can come and hear the crickets and the birds and the frogs; hike or ski or snowshoe the trails; get lost in the prairie grasses. No one has to be rushed or hurried. For many people, it's a deeply spiritual place--it's their church, their place to commune with bigger things."

Donlin concludes, "My degree has been a beautiful pairing of my interests with courses and fieldwork. I think it says to employers 'This person has a fire in her belly. She's ready to do incredible work for us, and isn't afraid to face challenges.' I hope, one day, it will bring me to a place just like this one."

Keith Pederson

Keith Pederson Degree concentrations: History and Social Sciences; Communication; Applied, Technical, and Professional Studies; minor in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Studies 

"Just an old lady trying to make a change," is the mantra of a one Mrs. Margie Pederson--a.k.a. Mama P., Mrs. Pederson, and Margie.

The blonde afro bedecked, '70s-era schoolmarmish be-togged alter ego of Multidisciplinary Studies student Keith Pederson, Mrs. Pederson is one of the driving forces behind Keith's degree plan, which focuses on new media and GLBT history and studies.

"I work in the field of public health education, specifically on HIV education. Mrs. Pederson came about back when I was working with the Minnesota AIDS Project doing outreach for younger men. It was volunteer night, and all of these guys were over to make safer sex kits, and we fed them this horrible frozen pizza.

"I realized that we really should be valuing these volunteers more, so the next time, I took the afternoon to make up a huge pile of tater-tot hot dish, and served it up...and lo and behold, Margie was born."

Since then, Pederson has used Margie to serve as a mouthpiece for public health and mental health topics, largely through new media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and YouTube, along with public events and appearances such as Pride Fest and "Mrs. Pederson's Twin Cities Got Talent."

"Margie's messaging is a bit irreverent, fun, smart, and sassy," Pederson says. "She's a good public outreach tool, and just by being 'herself' in the public eye--at events or through her media channels--she allows us to reach a much wider audience.

"Mrs. Pederson is like that hip grandma giving advice. People open up to her, laugh with her, they ask her questions. When she's out in public, she's able to start up a dialogue with younger gay men who otherwise wouldn't have a conversation with me or another educator."

That connection to the community and openness to dialogue is crucial for public health education, specifically for HIV awareness among younger audiences--young gay men in particular, says Pederson. "If we can't message kids 'where they live'--get onto the phones in their pockets, then we won't be able to communicate good sexual health and public health practices.

"The best way to deal with HIV is to prevent it. There is 'treatment optimism' out there, and people who don't see STIs [sexually transmitted infections] and HIV as a big deal anymore because they think it's treatable. But the reality is, even for those who ARE able to treat it long term, that's still basically lifelong chemotherapy. It's toxic. If you don't have to subject your body to that, why would you? Don't contract it to begin with."

For Pederson, designing a degree that focuses on electronic journalism through new media technology, combined with GLBT studies is a way to build on his current career path and credentials. "The MdS degree says 'this is where I have been and what I value; this is where I plan to go; and this is how I will get there.' It's an opportunity to strengthen what I am already doing."

He continues, "It's perhaps an unusual combination on the surface, but the fit is perfect for my work. For me working in HIV prevention, one of the hardest hit communities is men who have sex with men. And, being a gay man myself, I think it's important to understand and value our history--the triumphs and the struggles. And the use of electronic media as a communication tool is only going to increase, so it's an ideal vehicle to use to reach out for education and community building.

"What we don't do in the U.S., we don't message our youth about prevention. They get a lot of sex messages--that's everywhere, from ABC to YouTube to the cable channels, but the whole safer sex message has gone by the wayside. If through Mrs. Pederson, we can get that education out to a broader audience, or if we can get one soccer mom who may be uncomfortable bringing the topic up with her kids to say 'well, if she can do it, so can I,'... well, that's my goal. My degree is giving me that opportunity, that chance to pursue the many different paths that health education can take, and to reach those audiences."