By Matt Watson
Roadrunners come in all shapes and sizes, in all ages and colors, and from all walks of life. For some of them, walking is life.
In 2010, Jonathon Stalls walked more than 3,000 miles across 14 states from Delaware to California. He left the Atlantic coast with not much more than his dog and a direction and made his way to a San Francisco beach 242 days and eight pairs of shoes later.
Oddly enough, Stalls’ expedition fit in perfectly with the degree he earned at Metropolitan State University of Denver the year prior, a degree he created himself through the University’s Individualized Degree Program called individualized studies: design and entrepreneurship.
“I wanted my degree to blend my creative capacity and design experience with hard skills that would support starting a social business, nonprofit or grassroots organization. It was the perfect launchpad for my cross-country walk,” Stalls says.
As part of his course work, Stalls worked with newly resettled refugees at the African Community Center of Denver, which inspired him to traverse the country for a cause. He has done more than 100 media interviews, including with The New York Times, about his self-described “rite of passage,” and he used his platform to raise awareness for Kiva, a microlending nonprofit that has facilitated $1.2 billion in crowdfunded loans to entrepreneurs in 81 countries since its 2005 inception. Stalls generated more than $500,000 in loans through his advocacy.
Not long after traveling coast to coast on foot, Stalls co-founded Walk2Connect, a grassroots social enterprise designed to connect people by walking together. The worker-owned cooperative hosts 50-70 connection-focused walks across Colorado and beyond. He’s also begun a new creative project called Intrinsic Paths that approaches a number of social issues from an artistic perspective.
“It’s all focused on human connection and moving the way we’re made to. It’s about public health, community health, pedestrian safety and education, equity, mental and emotional health – all of it. It has been a beautiful journey,” Stalls says. “I appreciate the freedom I’ve had to create, imagine and blend a wide variety of interests into a career.”
In the 1980s and ’90s, Bantam Books sold more than 250 million copies of books from its “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, which made readers the protagonists in their own interactive stories by allowing them to make decisions that determined alternate endings by turning to different pages based on their choices.
The very nature of a book, a one-way form of static communication that transmits content from a storyteller or subject expert to a passive audience, was turned upside down by this children’s book series that made readers participants in their own adventures rather than observers of someone else’s story.
That’s what the Individualized Degree Program does for education.
Every year, some 200 students graduate with IDP degrees from MSU Denver, which has one of about 100 fully developed individualized-studies programs with dedicated advisors in the United States.
Kim VanHoosier-Carey, director of the Center for Individualized Learning that houses IDP majors and minors, says students who come through the program are innovators who are studying new, unique or interdisciplinary concepts. It’s the only program on campus with majors as diverse as counterterrorism, screenwriting and polyglotism (the ability to understand or speak several languages).
IDP also acts as an incubator for faculty who want to develop new majors before they’re added to the course catalog.
“We have students majoring and minoring in things like aerospace systems, which is not a regular degree program, but they get it through us and they get jobs,” VanHoosier-Carey says.
Magens Orman is one such graduate of individualized studies: aerospace systems design.
“Engineering had theory, industrial design was hands-on, and aerospace had systems and business, but none of them had everything I wanted. Through an IDP, I got to have the best of all these worlds,” Orman says. “I picked out what I thought were the most relevant classes that would give me a well-rounded foundation to be a competitive worker.”
Not long after her May 2014 graduation, she got a call from a recruiting company to ask if she wanted to build spacecraft for Sierra Nevada Corp.
“I started as an engineering technician and worked my way up. I’ve never stopped working hard, and now I am a mechanical engineer,” Orman says. “Some people are concerned that an IDP won’t get them the same thing as a standard university degree. I’m proof that this isn’t the case.”
Jonathan Rose took a similar path into the journalism industry. The Denver Business Journal associate editor complemented his major in convergent journalism with a minor in individualized studies: multimedia storytelling as “a way to loop in all of the disparate strings I was tugging and produce a solid knot,” he says.
“Without my degree, I never would have had the opportunity to land this job. Full stop,” says Rose, a 2018 graduate who got his foot in the door with an editorial internship at the DBJ through MSU Denver’s Applied Learning Center. “I found it through the school’s job board and had a solid portfolio because of my work there. My previous self-driven experience blogging and reporting stories for news sites gave me the foundation to thrive at MSU Denver, and my time there provided the next level of foundation.”
In her five years in the Center for Individualized Learning, including her first semester as director, VanHoosier-Carey has observed a different edge to IDP graduates: a socially conscious mindset.
She’s seen students create degrees in health equity, LGBTQ advocacy and humanitarian photography. One alumna’s degree in interpersonal violence systems and structures examined the interaction of human-services and criminal-justice systems on victims of domestic violence.
“These graduates represent what MSU Denver is. MSU Denver is accessible to students with lots of different ideas who have lots of different paths. We have a diverse group of students who are able to take their passion and turn it into a degree and a career path,” VanHoosier-Carey says.
While Jonathon Stalls walked 3,030 miles to bring his education full circle, Carol Johnson’s journey to a degree may have been even longer. Johnson set out to become a teacher when she started her college career at Loyola University in Chicago in 1960.
“Instead, I decided to get married. Along life’s road, my thoughts were to try the medical field, and I became a licensed practical nurse,” Johnson says. “After looking into the IDP years later, I discovered that I could finally accomplish my longtime goal of actually finishing a degree.”
Forty-five years after first registering for classes, Johnson earned her diploma as the oldest member of MSU Denver’s spring 2015 graduating class at age 72. On that momentous occasion, one of Johnson’s family members even got to join her on the commencement stage: Her granddaughter graduated the same day.
Johnson didn’t finish college just to keep up with her grandkids. Armed with her degree in individualized studies: elderhood services, Johnson co-leads a Parkinson’s disease support group in Highlands Ranch, participates in a study to develop palliative care for Parkinson’s patients and is an active member of the Philanthropic Educational Organization, which raises funds for women who need financial assistance to complete a college degree.
The Individualized Degree Program is often the most efficient way for those going back to school to get to graduation. For anyone who has changed majors or taken a break from academics only to find their degree has been discontinued, an IDP degree can chart a course forward without starting from scratch. The program also attracts those in the workforce looking to change or enhance their careers.
Efrain Bueno, a 2016 alumnus, double-majored in French and individualized studies: international relations and development and got a new job as a Spanish language specialist at the Colorado Department of Law.
“My IDP degree helped me to be a self-learner and to think about and connect big ideas, and in my job that is very important,” Bueno says.
Elizabeth Harden runs her own financial-wellness coaching firm, Elizabeth Starr Harden LLC. She took some night classes in the 1980s at then-Metropolitan State College of Denver and returned to campus to “fill in existing gaps” in her expertise. With a pretty specific vision, she built a degree called individualized studies: interpersonal dynamics and transformative systems.
“I’ve never been a person who fits well into other people’s boxes,” Harden says. “The career of the future will require interdisciplinary knowledge – crossing disciplines is a mind-expanding experience that results in unexpected dividends.
“The concept of an individualized degree is the wave of the future.”
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