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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Bridging arts and academics, Part 2: Difficulties, future hopes within the dual-degree program

A rendering of Dana Laboratory and Barnum Hall renovation is shown.

Despite the ever-growing demand for combined-degree programs at Tufts, dual-degree students continue to face challenges involving transportation, a lack of artistic resources available on the Medford/Somerville campus and difficulty navigating social life on two campuses.

Raissa Li, a first-year student who intended to study biochemistry and studio art as a dual-degree student, decided to drop out of the combined-degree program during her first semester. The program did not live up to her expectations, she said.

“Art has been a way of life for me since I was very little. I have taken studio art classes for 12 years, and I was thinking about attending an art school and pursuing art more seriously during senior year of my high school,” Raissa Li said. “As I also wanted to study biochemistry as a pre-med, [the combined-degree program at] Tufts seemed like a perfect place for me to pursue both … Overall, the program turned out to be very different from what I thought it was going to be like, even though I was in the program for a short time.”

Raissa Li noted that modes of transportation between the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) and the Medford/Somerville campus turned out to be a lot more stressful than she imagined.

“Even during the first week, the shuttle bus was running late, and we often had to wait for the next one to come. The next shuttle bus, however, turned out to be a small van that could not fit everyone,” Raissa Li said. “Because we had to get to our [first] classes, some people had to sit on the floor [with art supplies and canvasses] for an hour, which can be dangerous … I think that the physical distance between Tufts and the SMFA will continue to be a problem, as other schools that offer combined-degree programs are usually located right next to each other — Brown and RISD, for example.”

Other dual-degree students whom the Daily interviewed echoed Raissa Li’s sentiment. Matilda Biscaldi, a first-year dual-degree student from Genova, Italy, said that while she is very satisfied with the overall combined-degree program, she also finds transportation between the SMFA and Medford/Somerville campus an issue.

“To me, the shuttle bus does not get any better, but people in the program have told me that it has improved over the past few years ... I honestly cannot imagine how difficult it must have been in the past,” Biscaldi said. “At the beginning of this semester, people were getting kicked out of the 8 a.m. bus because there weren't enough seats ... I ended up having to sit on the floor [of the van] for my 9 a.m. class at [the] SMFA ... there’s so much more work to be done.”

According to a previous article by the Daily, the university has already expanded its efforts to make the shuttle buses more reliable, most notably by adding three new vans between the SMFA and the Medford/Somerville campus. Biscaldi, however, noted that communication between students and the administration needs to be improved upon first.

“I think that Tufts already has the resources to make transportation between the two campuses better, but communication is really missing here … Often, a small van would show up in 8 a.m. for 40 people, but then a big shuttle bus would come to SMFA at 10 p.m. when there were only three people who are going back to Medford,” Biscaldi explained. “I totally understand how difficult it can be to schedule the buses, considering the varying number of students using the shuttle bus. But I think that there is an overall trend in the number of students using the bus, and the university should allocate resources based off that pattern.”

Regarding the students’ comments, Dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Nancy Bauer said that she is optimistic about improvement, noting that the university hopes to improve the experience by hiring a new professional in the field.

“[An increasing number of] students, not just those in the combined-degree program, take courses on both campuses." Bauer said. “One of the biggest challenges we’ve had is getting the bus schedule right. Tufts has recently brought in a new person with lots of experience in campus transportation to tweak the system, and he has exciting plans. I am optimistic about the future.”

In addition to inadequate transportation between the SMFA and the Medford/Somerville campus, many students pointed out that the program’s demanding graduation requirements can make it challenging to balance academics and artistic development at Tufts. According to the SMFA, dual-degree students need to complete 76 semester hour units in studio art, 15 credits in art history, on top of Tufts' liberal arts distribution and major requirements.

Jiamin Li, a first-year dual-degree student, is already worried about graduating on time due to the combined-degree program’s graduation requirements.

“Even though I came to Tufts with some pre-matriculation credits, I did not know what exactly I would major in at Tufts, and I thought that was a part of a liberal arts education experience … While students in the School of Arts and Sciences have much more time and space to explore [a variety of academic interests], many dual-degree students have to be clear on their majors earlier on to stay in track for the graduation [due to the graduation requirement],” Jiamin Li said. “As I plan on studying abroad, I am worried about whether I can graduate from Tufts in five years, as a lot of abroad programs only offer extensive art or liberal arts classes.”

Jiamin Li explained that when she shared her concerns about graduation requirements with her advisor, she got an unexpected response.

“While I am still pursuing the combined-degree program at Tufts, [the] first three weeks were really tough for me, as I had to find a balance between my workload at the SMFA and Medford [campus] … When I reached out to my advisor at the beginning of the semester, her advice was that I should simply drop out of the program [if the workload is too demanding for me],” Jiamin Li said. “As my pre-orientation leader also dropped out of the [combined-degree] program for a similar reason, I became skeptical about the overall program even from the beginning.”

Sadhana Madnani, another dual-degree student from Dubai, echoed Jianmin Li's sentiments by adding that the distribution requirement can make it difficult to pursue both her academic and artistic interests as a first-year.

“While I am still undecided [as to my major], I want to study [in the Department of] Child Study and Human Development at Tufts. But because of my SMFA classes, I have not been able to take an intro course ... which is something I did not expect coming in,” Madnani said. “Because of the distribution requirement and having to take an art history class for every semester, I can only take one academic course at Tufts that can count toward my major. This means that I won’t be able to take classes aligned with my [liberal arts] major until my third or fourth year.”

Raissa Li added that the lack of art-related resources on the Medford/Somerville campus can make it even more difficult for dual-degree students to balance their academic and artistic interests, compounded by the demanding workload.

“Even though I was optimistic about completing the program even as a pre-med, it became much more challenging for me due to the lack of spaces and resources for art on [the] Medford campus. While all dual-degree students live on the Medford campus, a lot of art studios and resources on Medford campus are reserved for [undergraduate and graduate] students who are taking art classes on the Medford campus,” Raissa Li said. “As I pursued watercolor painting as a dual-degree student, I realized that [after reaching out to the upperclassmen] there isn't any space on [the] Medford campus to complete my art assignment which involved toxic materials other than my room.”

While Bauer said that she understands where students are coming from, she emphasized that the current distribution requirement is an integral part of a liberal arts education at Tufts.

"We do recommend to combined-degree students that they avoid taking a ton of courses for one degree and only then move on to start taking courses on the other one. But, again, students are free to plan their own schedules," Bauer said. "Getting two full undergraduate degrees in five years requires more careful course planning on the part of students than doing one degree in five years. One other thing to note is that the regional accreditor for all degree-granting colleges and universities in New England mandates that all students getting two degrees fulfill all the requirements for each degree."

Bauer added that the renovation of Barnum Hall and Dana Laboratory on the Medford/Somerville campus will have more resources available to better accommodate the dual-degree students. According to architectural renderings by STUDIO ENÉE, the renovation of Barnum Hall and Dana Laboratory will add more dark rooms, computer labs, art studios and film studios in the lower level and second floor, beginning in fall 2019.

“When Barnum Hall comes back online, the SMFA will have programming in a few more spaces on the Medford campus, which means that there will be more support for students who want to work on their art projects in Medford,” Bauer said. “This will represent an expansion of SMFA opportunities, since we will be adding things to Medford, not subtracting them from the SMFA.”

On top of transportation and logistical issues, many suggested that the university should continue to work on fostering a more cohesive community for dual-degree students and publicizing the program to the greater Tufts community.

Hannah Smokelin, a first-year dual-degree student, said that while she is very satisfied with the overall academic program, there is a social divide within the SMFA and between the Medford/Somerville campus.

“The biggest downside of the program is that I feel a large disconnect between the Medford campus and the SMFA campus, and often times I feel like my social life is more difficult because I’m in the program. I wish the community of combined-degree students was stronger, and think that more could’ve been done in orientation to bring us closer together, or at least introduce us all to each other because there are still people at the SMFA and in the combined degree program whose names I don’t know,” Smokelin said. “The SMFA feels more to me just like a building that I take my art classes in and not really like a whole other school with a close community.”

Despite a number of challenges that the university and dual-degree students face, many students noted that they are excited to be a part of the program that is continuing to grow and evolve. Ali Haddi, a first-year dual-degree student from Boston, shared his experience with the program.

“Other than how intense my schedule can be and having to wake up early in the morning for the shuttle bus, I have really enjoyed the program … Collectively, dual-degree students have multiple layers of interest, on top of their academic interest at Tufts, which can be intellectually exciting and stimulating,” Haddi said. “Over the next four years, I am excited to see how my interests in computer science, engineering psychology, painting, photography and ceramics will come together.”

Echoing Haddi’s sentiment, Biscaldi said she looks forward to growing as a student and an artist as the combined-degree program continues to expand.

“I think that Tufts took a huge challenge by offering and expanding the combined-degree program. The program is offered by a very small number of universities for a reason and organizing a program [at this magnitude] comes at a great effort and cost,” Biscaldi said. “While the university still has a lot to work on to improve the program, I am grateful that Tufts has given me this incredible opportunity to learn and grow as a student and artist."

Moving forward, Bauer encouraged dual-degree students to engage with the effort in improving the program as a community.

"I urge students to report to us the difficulties they are experiencing to us. I have an anonymous online suggestion box that students can use to report any kinds of problems ... All suggestions come straight to my email inbox," Bauer said. "We know that certain things, such as [the] shuttle situation, are works in progress. But we can't fix what we don’t know is broken, and we’d love to hear their concerns and their ideas."