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New Renaissance Scholars Prize to Reward Undergraduates for Breadth and Depth of Study

AS AN ARCHITECT, engineer, physiologist, painter and musician, Leonardo da Vinci attracted the patronage of a duke, a pope and a king.

USC undergraduates also are about to sample some of the tangible rewards of being a Renaissance scholar.

At next year’s commencement exercises, the university will announce $10,000 prizes for undergraduates who have distinguished themselves in two or more widely separated fields of study.

Up to 20 graduating seniors each year will be awarded the USC Renaissance Scholar Prize, which is believed to be the first award of its kind in American higher education.

“It takes extra effort for students to stretch themselves to study two different areas in depth, and so we want to acknowledge the students who do so with great distinction,” said Joseph Hellige, vice provost for academic programs. “It is anticipated that the Renaissance Scholar prize will assist uniquely talented students in pursuing additional study in one or more of their areas of expertise.”

The prize is the latest example of ways the university is encouraging undergraduates to take advantage of educational opportunities unique to USC.

Thanks to the diversity and strength of USC’s professional schools and its College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the university boasts the broadest range of undergraduate minors at any university in the country. In the college alone, students can select from 30 different minors.

“A student can come here and major in French literature, for example, and take a minor in business or cinema-television or architecture or engineering,” said USC President Steven B. Sample. “That kind of high-quality breadth with depth simply will never be available at Harvard or Stanford or most of our peer universities.”

In 1996, the university streamlined the undergraduate general education curriculum to allow students more flexibility to pursue a minor or an additional major.

“The objective is not just breadth in the conventional sense – not just well-roundedness,” Sample said. “Rather, the object is breadth with depth, and the extraordinary release of intellectual energy that comes when two widely separate fields of thought are brought together in the same mind.”

Imaginative combinations among currently enrolled undergraduates include double majors in biomedical engineering and political science, economics and philosophy, and psychobiology and philosophy. One particularly energetic undergraduate has two majors – classics and philosophy – and two minors – piano performance and German.

The USC Renaissance Scholar Prize will be the pinnacle of recognition for such students. But it’s not the only way a USC undergraduate can win by being an interdisciplinary scholar.

BEGINNING NEXT YEAR, students pursuing two or more divergent fields of study can apply to be designated as a Renaissance Scholar, an honor that would be reflected on their transcript if they meet the rigorous requirements.

To be considered for the honor, students must first submit their course of study to a faculty panel, which will evaluate it for breadth and depth.

“A student majoring in business and minoring in accounting probably wouldn’t qualify because the two disciplines are so closely related,” Hellige said. “A Renaissance Scholar candidate may be someone who majors in physics and minors in cello performance or who majors in astronomy and minors in English. We’re trying to recognize students who take a major and a minor, or two majors, from two very different intellectual areas.”

This certification process could begin as early as the sophomore year.

Students who are certified as meeting the breadth requirement will receive the Renaissance Scholar honor if they graduate in five years or less with a 3.5 overall grade point average or better, and a 3.5 GPA or better in their major and minor course requirements.

“Like the summa cum laude or magna cum laude, the honor will be a signal to graduate and professional schools and future employers that they are looking at a uniquely accomplished person,” said L. Katharine Harrington, director of undergraduate programs.

To be considered for the $10,000 prize, Renaissance Scholars have to take another step. In their senior year, they must submit faculty recommendations and an essay in which they discuss “how their studies in two widely separated fields have affected their intellectual, social and professional development,” Hellige said.

A FACULTY PANEL will then select the recipients of the prizes, which will be awarded at graduation.

“Anyone who receives this prize is going to be a very accomplished student in the broadest sense – a true Renaissance person,” Harrington said.

But even if they don’t receive a prize or the honor, students who graduate with minors are expected to leave USC ahead of the game.

“We know that the 21st century is going to be more complicated than this century,” Harrington said. “We know it’s going to be even more important to be able to bring to bear divergent areas of expertise to the problems and situations our students will face in their professional lives. This kind of education will equip our students to do just that.”

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