Emily Jenchura is majoring in cross-cultural psychology. It is a major that Richmond doesn’t offer; she created it during her sophomore year when she sat up and realized that her major didn’t have to be of the one-size-fits-all variety.

“I came to Richmond thinking I was going to major in physics,” Jenchura said. “I soon learned that physics wasn’t for me. I took an introductory psychology class and really enjoyed it. Then there was a cross-cultural psychology class that I loved. I thought I’d just major in psychology, but as I looked at the upper level courses I’d be taking, there were a lot of courses that didn’t appeal to me.”

Meanwhile, Jenchura, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, made a personally revolutionary discovery. She roomed with two international students.

“This was huge for me because I’d never really gotten to know anyone outside of my hometown, let alone the United States. Their stories and cultures really piqued my interest, and I started reading up on Richmond’s international studies program. The classes all looked so interesting, and I was starting to think about where I wanted to study abroad,” Jenchura said.

South Africa was at the top of her list. The international studies major offered an African concentration, and slowly, things began to gel for Jenchura.

By the time she left for the University of Capetown in the spring of her junior year, she was well on her way to completing a major in cross-cultural psychology, a program of study that has allowed her to pick and choose courses that are significant to her personally and professionally.

“Proposing the interdisciplinary major was a lot easier that I thought it would be,” Jenchura said. “It seems intimidating to create your own major but my advisor, Dean Newcomb, really encouraged me. I put together a short proposal that included a list of nine classes that were interconnected based on my academic goals and submitted them to the Interdisciplinary Studies Program.”

The toughest part of creating an interdisciplinary major for most students is the fact that they must consider their senior theses much earlier than they would otherwise. It is important for students to understand how their varied interests will come together in one extensive research project. While their proposed topics may morph between when they declare the major and their senior year, it’s crucial that students start thinking about connections early.

Jenchura is glad she did. During her junior year, she started a psychology experiment with Dr. Scott Allison that focused on the Underdog Theory, or the tendency for people to root for a disadvantaged entity when matched with an advantaged opponent. She used photographs of societal underdogs and asked college students to rate the photographs on a scale—how much they sympathized with them, identified with them and thought of them as underdogs.

When she traveled to South Africa, she took the experiment with her, making certain accommodations for the different culture and societal norms. The results became an interesting cross-cultural comparison that she’s spending her senior year summarizing. Now that she’s back at Richmond, she’s also staying busy conducting research with Dr. Catherine Bagwell on cross-cultural friendships, after completing an exhaustive literature review over the summer.  

Jenchura may not have grown up in an international environment, but she’s certainly making up for it now. She’s applied for a Fulbright Research Grant to study interracial friendships in Trinidad and Tobago after graduation. She’s also hopeful that she’ll be selected to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa.

“I definitely want to go abroad next year. I see graduate school in my future, but I want to clarify my goals first,” she said.

With a major designed specifically to help her marry her interests and goals, her options should be unlimited.