New distinctions give students a taste of different disciplines


At Pitt, undergraduates can work toward multiple majors, minors, certificates, and now interdisciplinary distinctions.

“We wanted to do something a little creative in the undergraduate space,” said Joseph McCarthy, vice provost for Undergraduate Studies. Graduate programs are moving toward more “stackable” degrees, he said, which can include badging, micro-credentials and certificates.

Joseph McCarthy“In the undergraduate space, it’s much more difficult for students to explore in that way,” he said. The distinctions are a way for students “to be able to find their passion and explore different areas.”

The classroom learning is less than a minor — two to three classes vs. five or six for a minor.

“Having that smaller credit commitment was really important to be able to engage, for example, engineers and nursing (students) and some of the business majors like accounting — disciplines that have very highly structured undergraduate requirements,” McCarthy said.

But added to the classwork are requirements for specific Outside the Classroom Curriculum. The OCC activities will be specifically curated for each distinction and participation will be tracked with the current OCC system that allows students to scan QR codes and self-tracking.

“We have so many outstanding opportunities for students to engage outside of the classroom,” he said. “When we combine those in a very careful way then we feel like the students get to have an experience that in some ways is possibly more fulfilling than a minor but at a much smaller academic footprint.”

The student can get a taste for different topics with the distinctions and then can decide whether to pursue more classes in that subject for a certificate, minor or even a major. This is part of the Forge Your Own Path personalized education initiative. Julia Spear, associate vice provost for Academic Innovation, said the distinctions are just another alternative that students can add to their education package.

Students also will be encouraged to do a reflective capstone piece for the distinction that explains what they got out of the combination of classroom and out-of-classroom learning. McCarthy said this will help the students explain to prospective employers or grad schools what the “distinction” on their transcript means, since this program is fairly unique to Pitt.

Currently, there is one active distinction program and four others being developed. The Global Distinction kicked off with a launch party on Oct. 24. For this distinction, students must complete six credits of global coursework, 24 global events or activities, two high-impact global experiences, such as a Living Learning Community, study abroad or research project, and one reflection.

Even undergrads in their final year might be able to qualify for a distinction if they’ve taken classes and participated in activities since spring 2019 that are included in the program and that have been tracked through a suitable platform, Spear said. The classes include most language classes, plus courses from a wide variety of disciplines, including engineering, astronomy, marketing, epidemiology, nursing and many more.

McCarthy said the University Center for International Studies was the driving force behind this program, because the staff there found they were reaching many students in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, but not many in engineering, nursing and business.

Coming up next will be the Honors Distinction, for which McCarthy said he already has a proposal on his desk. The other three in the planning stages — although the names may change — are Sustainability Distinction, Applied Creativity Distinction and Civic Life Distinction. He said they’d really like to get the creativity distinction going this school year to tie in with the provost’s Year of Creativity.

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Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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