Social Sciences

Nontraditional Students, Athletes Flock to General Social Sciences

More than 600 students are now majoring in the rebooted GSS program

Benjamin Slutz found his job in sales—to put it bluntly—“soul-crushing.”

His colleagues seemed to care mostly about getting people to sign on the dotted line, buying residential or commercial security systems. Empathy for the customer? Ha! Just do what the law allows to get contracts, contracts, contracts. Then you’ll get paid.

Slutz loves business but figured there had to be more to it than this. And so, with an associate’s degree in hand, the twenty-five-year-old is back in school, charting a course to a career that will satisfy him professionally and personally.

Reuben Zahler hears a story like this almost daily. As director of the new General Social Sciences Program (GSS), Zahler is fast acquainting himself with two very large populations of college students: those who don’t fit neatly into a particular department or field, and those—like Slutz—who are on an educational path other than the traditional, four-year model.

Both groups are finding a home in GSS, which the university reintroduced in 2011. Under the program, students tailor their major with courses from several departments across the social sciences and in the professional schools, in pursuit of one of four tracks: applied economics and business; crime, law and society; globalization, environment and policy; or social studies teaching.

With more than 600 majors currently, GSS has quickly become the fourth most-popular major in social sciences, behind economics, sociology and political science. Program coordinator Gretchen Hill, who, with Zahler, interviews each and every student before accepting them into the program, has moved from part-time to full-time to manage the interest.

Senior Kehala Hervey, a double major in GSS and Spanish, is using the program to develop a comprehensive understanding of the criminal justice system. As a GSS major, Hervey has taken classes in political science, law, family and human services and ethnic studies. In combination, these courses offer her a broad view of the function and structure of the justice system as well as on-the-ground perspectives about relevant topics such as race, gender and socioeconomic class.

“There are many social issues that intersect with crime,” Hervey said. “The interdisciplinary nature of GSS allows me to investigate these issues through an array of methodological frameworks. The variety offers what a single framework could not—a multifaceted view of a complex subject.”

While the average age of a UO senior is twenty-four, the number is slightly higher for GSS seniors, twenty-five. That’s a reflection of nontraditional students, many of whom return to school after unsatisfying experiences in the working world or because they want to improve on lackluster performances as undergraduates the first time through.

The vast array of courses in the 48-credit GSS major serves students with atypical schedules or a need to graduate in a timely manner. Student-athletes, for example, seek out the major because it offers numerous courses that fit with practice schedules, Zahler said.

Slutz originally hoped to study business at the UO when he returned, but he doesn’t want to spend four years in college. With the GSS major, he’ll graduate in two-and-a-half years, concentrating on courses in economics, marketing and finance that get him closer to his goal of one day managing small or medium-sized companies.

“It’s exactly what I want to be learning,” Slutz said. “You can take the classes you want, you can take them when you want. [The GSS major] is less structured than the other majors on campus, and that allows students like me to build their own studies as they see fit.”

—Matt Cooper