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Fifteen Years of Bridging Disciplines

As we celebrate fifteen years of the BDPs, we take this moment to look back and remember how the programs began and how much has changed. Since they were launched in 2002, the Bridging Disciplines Programs have grown in so many ways, while still remaining true to the initial ideals set forth by then-Provost Sheldon Ekland-Olson and Vice Provost Lucia Gilbert. From eight students in four original interdisciplinary concentrations to over 700 current students in fifteen active certificates—with more in development—the BDPs have continued to evolve to meet the needs of interdisciplinary undergraduate education at the University of Texas at Austin.

When Provost Ekland-Olson and Vice Provost Gilbert convened the “Vision Committee,” a group of faculty members from across campus committed to undergraduate education, in the spring of 2000, their goal was to enhance the undergraduate experience at UT. This committee, which included faculty from five colleges and schools, developed the idea of interdisciplinary concentrations, meant to help students build a meaningful intellectual narrative to connect their studies throughout their undergraduate career.

By May 2002, the Bridging Disciplines Programs were launched with four initial themes—Information Technology, Environment, Children & Society, and Ethics & Leadership—each of which had at least one student enrolled. Four of those first BDP students graduated with completed certificates in 2004, becoming the first BDP alumni, a group which now includes over 1,150 graduates. The increasing popularity of the programs among students, the accomplishments of our alumni, and the widespread support the BDPs enjoy from UT faculty and community partners all speak to how well the BDPs have realized those initial goals of the Vision Committee.

For more insight into the BDPs’ history and future, Dr. Jeanette Herman, director of the program since 2006, answered a few questions to highlight some of the important happenings of the Bridging Disciplines Programs over their 15-year tenure.

What do you see as the biggest changes in the BDPs overall since their initial founding?

Probably the biggest change is the program’s growth, both in terms of number of programs and numbers of students and applicants. In order to accommodate so much growth, there have been a lot of changes behind the scenes, and we are constantly looking for opportunities to improve the programs and what we offer for students. But across all of these changes, there has also been a remarkable degree of continuity. Many of the original faculty members who participated in the Vision Committee that developed the BDPs and who were involved on the faculty panels for the first few programs are still part of BDP faculty panels today. The basic structure of the BDP interdisciplinary curriculum—with foundation courses, more specialized strand courses, and Connecting Experiences—has remained unchanged since the programs began. This continuity speaks volumes about the strength of the original vision that led to the BDPs.

What have been some of the major events of the last five years of BDPs?

A lot has happened in the past five years! We have expanded our program offerings with new BDP certificates in Public Policy—a partnership with the LBJ School of Public Affairs—and Museum Studies. A new program in Design Strategies, which was developed in collaboration with the Center for Integrated Design, is set to launch in spring 2018.

One of the most exciting developments in the past five years has been our engagement with alumni. Not only has our number of alumni more than doubled—628 students have graduated with BDP certificates in that time—but we have made it a priority to cultivate ongoing relationships with our fantastic alumni in a way that benefits both alumni and current students. In 2016, we convened the first meeting of our BDP Alumni Advisory Group, which has been advising and working with the program staff on new initiatives designed to engage alumni and current students. As a result of their efforts, nearly 100 current BDP students will be paired with an alumni mentor for the 2017-2018 academic year, giving students the chance to learn from the experiences of others who have used their interdisciplinary BDP education to build impressive careers. Alumni are involved in the programs in a variety of other ways, too, from participating on panels for current students about their post-graduation experiences, to being guest speakers for BDP 101 courses, to being available for informational interviews with BDP students.

Another development has been a new focus on connecting students with employers and developing more partnerships with internship sites. In April 2017, we invited employers and representatives from internship sites to our annual poster session for the first time, giving students the opportunity to connect with organizations where they might consider future internship or job opportunities, and at the same time giving employers a glimpse of what it means for a student to graduate from UT Austin with a BDP certificate.

What do you see as the future of the program?

As a structure for creating new curriculum and programs at UT Austin, the BDPs were designed to be flexible enough to adapt to changing student interests and needs, areas of faculty expertise across campus, and needs in the workforce. As new opportunities and needs continue to emerge, I want the BDPs to continue to evolve to fill those needs in a way that cuts across the boundaries that divide disciplines, colleges, and schools at the university. Next year, we’re launching a new certificate in Design Strategies, and there are additional opportunities for new BDP certificates that we’re working toward implementing in the future.

I also see engagement with alumni and employers as an important part of the future of the BDPs. Already, we’re seeing the benefits of having a large, invested, and incredibly accomplished BDP alumni network. As our BDP alumni continue to advance in their careers, there is an opportunity for them to be a resource for our students, programs, and for other BDP alumni. On the employer side, we already have connections with wonderful organizations where BDP students have been interning for years, and the BDPs will be working to further develop these partnerships and to better inform employers about the unique skills BDP graduates bring with them into their careers.

In my view, with their focus on interdisciplinarity, hands-on learning through research and internships, and helping students craft academic paths toward achieving their goals, the BDPs are where the future of higher education is headed. Back in 2002 when the programs were launched, they were ahead of their time, and I think they still are today. I’m excited to see what new opportunities and challenges the next fifteen years bring.