Jess Gaughan ’19 Creates Interdisciplinary Major Suited Just for Her

college student with long red hair standing outside on campus

In addition to already offering more than 50 majors and minors, Rhodes College affords students the opportunity to create a personalized program of study for their particular goals and interests. For senior Jess Gaughan, that has meant combining political science, philosophy, and international studies to design her own major in preparation to one day work as a public defender and in the area of criminal justice reform. 

“My goal is to work with indigent people who have been charged with criminal offenses,” says Gaughan. “I see myself in Memphis, or in a city like Memphis, where there are economic disparities and racial disparities.” 

Rhodes students who are interested in a self-designed course of study work closely with advising faculty in the relevant departments to construct a proposal and then to see their studies through to completion. A proposal must include an essay that articulates the student’s rationale for the interdisciplinary major, as well as a list of courses with numbers and titles that comprise the interdisciplinary major. The Declaration of Interdisciplinary Major must be endorsed in writing by the chairpersons of the concerned departments and reviewed by the registrar and Education Program Committee.

In deciding on a major, Gaughan considered which courses would help investigate questions she cared about, such as “What is justice?” and “What is equality, and what does that really mean in the justice system?” 

“I was interested in both the theoretical and the applicable,” says Gaughan. “I searched for classes that dealt with the thought process of justice, which led me to the Philosophy of Race course, the Social and Political Philosophy course, and Feminist Philosophy. For the political science and international studies courses, I looked for those that included rights of the accused and that would allow me to make application of the theoretical framework of justice.” 

Gaughan has served as an intern in the Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender since June 2018, and is the Memphis Fellow for IGNITE National, which encourages young women to actively engage in the political process and assert and demonstrate their beliefs in the public arena. She also serves as the College Democrats of Tennessee director of minority affairs.

“Politics really is at every single level of society, whether you think you are involved in politics or not,” says Gaughan. “It’s being involved in something you care about and taking a leadership role within an organization. Once doing that, you might start to notice there are issues you care about in your community, your state, and then on the national level. Starting small is the best way to make the most impact.”

Gaughan, who grew up in a Jewish community in Long Island, NY, says attending college in the South has allowed her to get to know and appreciate people with very different experiences from hers. She has taken on leadership roles on campus, including serving as president of the Rhodes College Democrats and vice president of the Rhodes College Hillel.  She also participates in the Rhodes College Mock Trial program.

With the experiences she has gained through working and volunteering on and off campus, combined with her self-designed major, Gaughan is discovering the person she wants to be while creating a meaningful future for herself.

By Meg Jerit ’20