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Tyler Pettigrew Graduates Phi Beta Kappa with a Custom-Designed Degree

Tyler Pettigrew is driven. When UC didn’t offer the degree he needed, he created an interdisciplinary program for himself. Now it’s driving him to Princeton.

Date: 5/31/2006
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover, photojournalist
UC ingot There’s a misconception that the bachelor of interdisciplinary studies (B.I.S.) degree amounts to earning a degree in “undecided.” Not true.

Soul Searching

Tyler Pettigrew decided that he needed an undergraduate degree that would prepare him equally well for preaching or teaching. He also decided that he wanted to learn about religions, Biblical Hebrew, anthropology, culture and change. And he decided that the University of Cincinnati was where he wanted to earn this degree.

The interdisciplinary studies program within the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences offered Tyler exactly what he needed. But first he tested the waters at another university. Having graduated from Lakota West High School, he didn’t want to make his college choice a knee-jerk assumption that he would attend the hometown college. So he went to South Carolina to Furman, a small liberal arts university.

With a sister at Xavier and a brother at the University of Kentucky, Tyler didn’t want to put a strain on the family finances so he applied for ROTC. He participated in ROTC on what’s referred to as a “goodwill” basis, receiving the “Superior Cadet” award at the end of his first year. After a wrestling injury put him at risk for losing his ROTC and university scholarships, however, he decided to find a more economical path to attaining his goals. Enter the University of Cincinnati.

Tyler Pettigrew.

“I did a lot of soul searching —I had already moved in,” says Tyler. He talked to the dean of finance at Furman and found out that the university would not be able to provide any scholarship to replace the lost ROTC scholarship. “I unpacked my room and put it back in the car. I moved in and moved out the same day.”

After a brief stay with his grandparents, who live near Furman, Tyler came home to Cincinnati — and UC.

“UC seemed like a good choice since they have rolling admission,” Tyler says. Having earned a 3.6 GPA at Furman, he decided to sign up for some science courses at UC. “My father is a scientist at P&G, so I thought maybe I should go into science or engineering.” Tyler enjoyed his geology classes with professors Dietsch and Huff, but decided it wasn’t his niche in life.

From Rocks of the Ages to the Rock of Ages

Tyler has always been interested in religious studies and had taken comparative religious studies courses while at Furman. At UC, he enrolled in Judaic Studies courses, which he enjoyed thoroughly.

“Dr. Kaplan’s Bible class was great,” says Tyler. “I would have majored in Judaic Studies, but it requires three years of modern Hebrew.” Being more interested in Biblical Hebrew than modern Hebrew, Tyler felt he needed to major in something else. Then he met John Brolley, a field service instructor in Judaic Studies and the director of the former Religious Studies program. Brolley shared an office with Terri Premo, the academic director of the interdisciplinary studies program. Tyler talked to Premo and found his degree program.

“It’s a misconception that the B.I.S. is thrown together,” says Tyler. “It actually requires more work, more thought.” Tyler took the college requirements, the departmental requirements, the requirements for a minor in Judaic Studies and added coursework in philosophy, anthropology, sociology and history. He calls his individualized program focusing on monotheisms “Religion, Culture and Change.”

“Creating one’s own major requires having a strong vision and the ability to translate that vision into an academic major that has integrity and meets his (and the college’s) academic goals,” says Premo. “Tyler succeeded so well that he has been accepted (with a fellowship) into Princeton’s Master’s in Divinity program, starting in the fall. He has achieved this while continuing to work in the community with youth groups.”

“It is often assumed that the B.I.S. degree, unlike the B.A. and B.S., permits students to skirt the discipline of liberal arts requirements such as math, foreign languages, and sciences. Not so. All B.I.S. graduates must undertake all the college’s breadth of knowledge requirements,” says Robert Fee, senior assistant dean of the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences and former director of the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies. “Second, instead of following a curriculum prescribed for our 34 majors, the B.I.S. student builds his or her own ‘major’ and must defend it as educationally coherent before gaining approval. Many traditional majors include a small number of specifically required courses and permit students to take others that may or may not be demanding. B.I.S. students must defend every course they take as being relevant to their theme.
“In short, the degree is not a way out of academic discipline (for example, students cannot simply ask for the B.I.S. degree if they fall short of specific B.A. or B.S. requirements). It requires planning and forethought and those who undertake it are among our brightest and most thoughtful students.”

Tyler’s next step was to get all the required approvals from Kaplan, Brolley and Premo.

"When we first met to discuss the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, he arrived with a first draft of his proposal and an exhaustive list of possible courses in hand," says Brolley. "He never missed an opportunity to update us on his progress, even as he inadvertently qualified for a minor in Judaic Studies. Tyler has a keen intellect, an inquiring spirit, a big heart, a wonderfully supportive family, and that special combination of wonder and determination – he may as well carry a big sandwich board that reads SCHOLAR. He has researched every possible etymology of his own last name – that says something right there."

“The undergrad advisors in each department are more than happy to help you,” says Tyler. When he pointed out to Brolley the modern vs. Biblical Hebrew dilemma, Brolley added Biblical Hebrew to the department’s offerings.

“It is just an example of how that particular department is willing to mold itself to better educate the students,” says Tyler. “The professors are there to teach students and to help them actually learn.” Tyler’s program was approved at the end of his junior year. Now he has fulfilled all the required coursework and is taking classes that pique his interest. One of his favorite classes, “Hebrew Books,” was taught by Daniel Rettberg, a librarian at Hebrew Union College. In that class, Tyler was able to study very early printed manuscripts.

"In class, Tyler is always prepared, always on time, always seeing the details as well as the big picture – the type of student who puts a real face on the concept of interdisciplinarity," Brolley says. "He is quick (and 99.9% accurate) with his answers, just as quick (and 99.9% on target) with his questions, and is always willing to assist any of his classmates who appears to be struggling."

Tyler was initially concerned whether a secular state institution would do justice to religious studies, but his fears were allayed quickly.

“It was heartening to me to realize that this institution deems it worthy of study,” Tyler says. “Nobody can deny the fact that religious studies is an important topic. It is part of our politics, business and culture.”

“Tyler says he likes the fact that he’s found some of the more ‘secret’ or not-well-known pathways here at UC,” says Premo. “Designing his own degree, for instance, allowed him to pursue religious studies in a secular state university. His self-designed curriculum has included such diverse courses as Biblical Archeology, Demons in the Bible, Mythology, and Marx. One of his current courses, ‘History of Jewish Books,’ has enabled him to work with the librarian at Hebrew Union College, meeting in the HUC rare book archives for class, learning how to interpret texts that are hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old in a class of four.  What an opportunity!  And how few students know it exists!”

Path Forward

Over the summer between his junior and senior year, Tyler started to think about his next direction after obtaining his bachelor’s degree. He talked to ministers and youth coordinators at his Presbyterian church, various seminaries and UC.

“The Presbyterians are keen on education,” Tyler says. “Some of the best schools in the country are Presbyterian.” He applied and was accepted at Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the most prestigious seminaries in the nation. Tyler will be starting in their master of divinity program in the fall.

“Now I am prepared to continue my education for either a teaching or religious profession,” he says. Tyler says that many doors are open to him. He might knock on more than one of them. He cites his grandfather as a role model for him in setting your life’s goals. His grandfather had a PhD in plant genetics and worked in Montana. After being the dean of agriculture at Clemson University, he decided to go back to school in his 50s to earn a law degree.

“It doesn’t matter where it is but that what you’re doing sets you on fire,” he says. “Life is not about finding that one thing and sticking with that. You can always re-evaluate.”

Tyler believes that his coming to the University of Cincinnati was perhaps providence or fate. “I appreciate what this school has become for me,” he says. “The people I met, the teachers I had — I could not ask for anything better and wouldn’t trade my experience here for anything.”

There are no standard paths to the study of religion. There are no standard destinations, either. Tyler Pettigrew is forging his own road.

“There are lots of pathways to success here in A&S,” says Premo. “Tyler is an excellent example of a student with the self-discipline and intellect to create his own pathway, one that is leading him toward a very bright future.”

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