Students create majors tailored to individual goals
Published: Monday, September 21, 2009
Updated: Monday, September 21, 2009 23:09
After witnessing firsthand the dangerous working conditions in textile and footwear industries on a family trip to Taiwan in August 2007, university senior Rita Chang could not stop thinking about what she saw.
"Working conditions weren't good at all," Chang says.
Chang, who had come to the university as a biological sciences major, was inspired by her experiences to create a unique major: social responsibility in the textile and apparel industry. Her experiences led her to Marsha Dickson, a professor in the fashion and apparel studies department. Dickson, who serves on the board of directors for the Fair Labor Association, helped Chang create the Dean's Scholar major, which focuses on understanding workers' rights in other countries.
This past summer, Chang returned to Taiwan for two months to do independent research. She worked for one month as a pseudo-corporate social responsibility consultant, she says, before interning at Nike in Taiwan for the second month. At Nike, Chang helped re-design the company's second sustainability report. She also helped write an informational booklet on how recycled polyester bottles can be made into polyester fibers and used for clothing. The booklet will be circulated and used globally.
For Chang, the chance to go to Taiwan gave her experiences she couldn't get in the U.S.
"Since most U.S. footwear and apparel industries outsource, especially to Asia, I wouldn't really have had a chance to work with a factory if I hadn't gone," she says. "It was more about learning from the factory point of view, as opposed to the business point of view."
Chang hopes to go to business school after she graduates, and to ultimately work at a corporation.
"That's where most of the problems in factories originate," Chang says.
However, without the Dean's Scholar program, Chang would not have had the opportunity to create the major.
"The Dean's Scholar program is a great option for students with a broad range of interests that don't fit under one major," says Dickson, Chang's advisor. "It's a way to precisely create a major to custom fit the student's needs."
Dickson helped Chang figure out how she could play a role in improving working conditions in factories. The pair collaborated to put together classes they thought were key for the industry.
"From supply chains to profit makers, we are giving her that kind of basis for the merchandising, to understand the industry and how it works," Dickson says.
Chang's major also includes courses that formed a graduate certificate in socially responsible and sustainable apparel.
"Those courses are more advanced, looking at the things that trigger changes in the industry," Dickson says.
The courses include trade policy and its influence on the industry, and how the culture of different people involved in factories can affect working conditions.
"A factory could be set in one country, but have migrant workers from another, and a manager from a third," she says. "There are all kinds of situations that could arise in that scenario."
The main difference between Chang's major and a typical fashion merchandising major is the broader range of courses she has taken.
"We took out courses focused more on branding, consumers and marketing," Dickson says. "We added courses about the economics of developing countries, international development and other economics and political science courses that round out the full understanding of the industry and the situation its in."
Dickson says there is a large range of options for students interested in similar majors.
"There is a big variety of pretty interesting things to do," she says. "Rita could go into human rights law, into business into a corporate responsibility program, like the one at Nike, or maybe work for the government or the State Department. She could even work for an NGO, for organizations and consumer campaigns."
Like Chang, junior Jennifer McCord did not enter the university planning to create a fashion-related major, but after she took a broad range of classes, including anthropology, sociology and environmental studies courses, her adviser suggested she create a Dean's Scholar major. McCord's major, social responsibility and sustainability in the fashion industry, focuses both on workers rights as well as environmental policy and political thought.
McCord, who entered the university undecided, says she created her major because she feels the movement towards green living and sustainability is relevant to the fashion industry. It's a good way to make an impact, she says.
Last year, McCord worked on a research project in the fashion department called the University of Delaware Sustainable Apparel Initiative, researching the strategies companies could use to make businesses more sustainable. She says the project, which was published in the fashion magazine "Women's Wear Daily," helped her learn how to contact people in the industry.
"You can have ideas in academia, but they don't actually matter unless you can reach people in the industry and consumers," McCord says.
Dickson says she has enjoyed working with students like Chang and McCord.
"Working directly with students who are passionate about issues, like they are, is very rewarding and exciting."