Pitzer produces active, engaged graduates by placing their students at the helm of their educational careers. Unlike colleges that have pre-set criteria for each major with little room for individual control, Pitzer provides a set of educational goals that students use, in cooperation with their adviser, to create an academic plan with “an individualized program of study which responds to the students’ own intellectual needs and interests.” Students can choose from any of Pitzer’s four-one majors or any major offered by another Claremont College that is not available at Pitzer. In addition, students may create their own Combined Major, which borrows elements from two majors to generate a specialized, interdisciplinary major. But for those who want to carve out an even more specialized space for themselves, Pitzer has a third option called a Special Major. Special Majors are for students who wish to pursue a line of academic inquiry that is not covered by any existing major. The student is responsible, in collaboration with at least two members of the faculty, for developing the title and purpose of the Special Major and for establishing the intellectual coherence and the academic guidelines for their Special Major. An Asian studies graduate of 2013 told us this kind of autonomy and interdisciplinary study was a huge pull. “I really liked and appreciated the fact that you had the option to design your own major, that there was no strict set of courses you had to take, but rather had the option to take many courses within different disciplines, many of which overlapped with other disciplines which allowed for a truly interdisciplinary experience.”
In addition to the premium it places on a student-guided education, Pitzer’s curricular structure also weaves in elements of its social justice mission. Katie Purvis-Robert, professor of chemistry and environmental science, told us that students who do well at Pitzer are “curious and want to change the world.” Student engagement is a huge part of Pitzer culture all the way down to its curriculum. All students, regardless of major, fulfill a Social Responsibility Objective through community service, community-based fieldwork, or a community based internship. Many Pitzer classes help to fulfill this requirement by pairing theory with practical, community-based application. In fact, Kathy Yep, assistant professor of sociology and Asian American studies, was awarded a Carnegie Foundation Faculty Fellowship for service-learning courses that “focus on facilitating students’ analytical skills . . . by exploring social theories such as Pierre Bourdieu’s social reproduction or Chandra Mohanty’s feminist genealogies through collaborations with communities-at-large,” according to the school’s website.
Collectively these students have gained thousands of hours of experience in cooperation with “community partnerships [ranging] from after-school tutoring programs in underserved communities to first-generation college student retention efforts at the Claremont Colleges and adult literacy work with immigrant communities,” the school’s website explained. In addition, every student explores a topic of special interest within their major through at least two disciplines and two cultural perspectives. Students collaborate with their academic advisers and are encouraged to be innovative in their approach. Through social engagement and multifocal study, students are able to test, reevaluate, and fine-tune what they’ve learned in the classroom while gaining an appreciation for what Pitzer calls “the ethical implications of knowledge and action.”
With sixty programs to choose from, study abroad is hugely popular at Pitzer. The Institute for Global Local Action “helps students integrate their learning from study abroad experiences with local community engagement.” For Sayjal Waddy, a 2007 sociology major, studying abroad was a transformative experience. “My semester abroad was the most valuable experience I had in college. The Pitzer in Botswana program was life changing. Through that program I lived in a rural village for a month with no electricity or running water. In that month I learned that I was stronger than I realized. I spent the rest of my time working in orphanages throughout the country.” Experiences like Sayjal’s run deep in Pitzer’s institutional memory. A history major from the Class of 1975 told us that “a clear grasp of their role as agents of change, here and abroad; a devotion to social-justice causes; a commitment to making the world more habitable, green, and just” are the defining characteristics of Pitzer graduates.
The college also operates a semester long study abroad program in Costa Rica through the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology. Located near the Hacienda Baru Reserve, the Firestone Center is a former lowland rainforest that was cleared for cattle farming during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Today Pitzer College manages the land through restoration ecology and sustainable forestry efforts. Students take classes in topical and human ecology where they study “critical interactions between humans and the natural world” and gain hands on experience in the study of tropical ecosystems, according to the program’s description.
Alumni maintain strong ties to the college and the campus community, and nearly everyone we spoke with serves on the alumni board and mentors students. Pitzer graduates count among their numbers are a blend of writers and entertainers, including musician John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats and the Emmy Award winning writer for Saturday Night Live Max Brooks. There are just as many political leaders, including Hunter Lovins, a sustainability entrepreneur and writer who served as a North American delegate to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development and was named a “Hero of the Planet” by Time magazine. When it comes to career, Pitzer College links up with rest of The Claremont Colleges in a joint On-Campus Recruiting Program that brings Paramount, Disney, Google, J.P. Morgan, and more to campus to tap into Claremont talent.
What does a Pitzer graduate, in particular, bring to the table? Dr. Suyapa Portillo, both an alumna and assistant professor at Pitzer, summed it up for us: “A graduating senior, a seasoned Pitzer student, has been engaged in some sort of project for a long-time (or the duration of their time at Pitzer and also while studying abroad), showing commitment and follow through. They are creative writers and researchers. There is a good balance between community work, and many understand the links between scholarship and societal concerns. They are probably going to apply and win a Fulbright, or Watson Fellowship, or end up going to work on something related to their course of study at Pitzer, from environment, to policy, to social justice, or healthcare.” A 2012 English and creative writing alumna agreed. She said, “Their real world identities are diverse, but what they share is that they are life-long philanthropists.”