If Pomona College students were evenly distributed throughout the departments, there would be about 35 students per major. In reality, the distribution is far from equal, leaving some of the college’s 48 majors with few students.
The consensus among Pomona students who are one of few — or the only one — pursuing their major seems to be that belonging to small departments can mostly enrich, but at times diminish, their life.
When Amy Oden PO ’18 arrived in Claremont after graduating from Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where she studied dance, she suspected her passion was going to take a backseat to other areas of study. However, the summer after her first year, she interned at the American Dance Festival, where a teacher’s praise spurred her to pursue a career in dance.
“I needed someone to tell me I had what it took,” Oden said. “I definitely couldn’t decide that for myself.”
Encouragement from instructors and classmates in both the Pomona and Scripps College dance departments have helped sustain her motivation. However, being the only dance major at Pomona narrows her frame of reference.
“I’ve felt so supported by the faculty and other students,” Oden said. “But it feels like I’m in a little bit of a bubble here because there are no other dance majors — no one to compare myself to. I’m not going to auditions because I don’t see other people going.”
Olivia Kier PO ’20 articulated her experience as a soon-to-declare romance languages and literatures major in a similar way, though she sees the scarcity of reference points as a potential advantage.
“I really don’t have a good understanding of how my major compares to, say, a French major and a Spanish minor. In that respect, I’ve been doing a lot of guesswork,” Kier said. “At the same time, it feels nice to be on your own because it seems like you’re at the frontier of whatever this major is going to produce.”
Kier decided on the RLL major at the advice of Pomona’s Associate Professor Paul H. Cahill, with whom she now conducts research on Spanish poetry.
“The minute I got to campus, [Cahill] was already planting the seed,” Kier said. “I turned in an essay and he said, ‘And this would be a great idea for a thesis if you were to do the RLL major!’”
Art history major Soleil Ball Van Zee PO ’19 chose her discipline after taking a class with Professor and Department Chair George Gorse, whose enthusiasm for visual studies inspired her.
“He tells the stories of art history like they’re his own stories,” Ball Van Zee said. “He knows the artists inside and out.”
She ventured to say that professors from less popular departments tend to recruit students more actively than do professors in larger departments.
“Gorse is so excited to have so many art history majors,” Ball Van Zee said. “He’ll do anything to make sure we graduate as art history majors. I know people who had to make the decision to major or minor in computer science and their professors told them, ‘Well if you don’t really want to do it, I would say don’t.’”
Babs Peisch PO ’19, another of Pomona’s four art history majors, considers the major’s small numbers as a selling point.
“It’s never hard to schedule office hours,” Peisch said. “I’ve never felt like it’s been hard for me to connect with a professor. They’ve always been attentive and available.”
In fact, every interviewed student said they would encourage classmates thinking of majoring in their respective fields to do so.