Tufts/NEC students juggle dual-college experience, rigorous academics

Moira Loh and a fellow student perform at the Dual Degree Concert in the Granoff Music Center on Nov. 12, 2016. Courtesy Moira Loh

If you ask a Tufts student about a combined degree program offered here, it is likely that they will assume you’re referring to the BFA + BA/BS program between the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts. But for students passionate about music, there is another program available: the highly competitive and intense five-year combined degree program between Tufts and the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston.

Due to the nature of the Tufts/NEC combined degree program, its application process differs from those who are seeking admission to just one school.

“You have to apply to Tufts and NEC separately, and then you have to apply to get into the dual degree. Usually you get accepted by individual schools and then you indicate that you’re applying for the dual degree, and then they will also tell you if you’re in,” Tufts/NEC combined degree student Moira Loh said.

Loh, a junior, was originally a student solely at the NEC, but chose to join the combined degree program as a sophomore.

“I originally applied to NEC — I was an NEC student first, then I transferred into Tufts and into the dual degree. I did my first year at NEC and I liked it a lot, but I decided that I wanted something more, so I decided to try Tufts,” she said.

Loh majors in film and media studies with a minor in drama at Tufts, and she is a classical voice major at NEC.

“I knew that I definitely wanted to go into the arts, I just wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do music or more interdisciplinary stuff. For me it’s a very artsy track, but for a lot of the other students, that’s not the case,” Loh said.

Sophomore Daniel Cetlin is one such Tufts/NEC combined degree student. He is majoring in computer science at Tufts and contemporary improvisation at NEC.

“My major at NEC is hard to explain, but basically it has to do with developing your improvisational skills while also developing your musical vocabulary, developing new sounds, new ways to play and being able to sing your instrument through any mechanism,” Cetlin said. “I don’t know if I could do this program if I didn’t have both, to be honest, it’s nice to escape from one with the other.”

Junior Ari Brown is another one of these students. He is majoring in computer science at Tufts and is a part of the composition program at NEC. Although he lives on the Medford/Somerville campus, he feels very comfortable with both schools.

“Most students in the dual degree program live at Tufts, but living at NEC is also a choice. Because I live around Tufts, it feels more like my home. However, this also depends on the groups of friends a dual student has at either school. NEC is a small community, and so you always see a lot of people you know when walking around the buildings,” Brown told the Daily in an email.

According to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the Tufts/NEC program is described as “a difficult but rewarding program for talented students who are prepared to make a commitment to both areas of study.” It is no surprise that the course load is extremely rigorous in comparison to other programs in the School of Arts and Sciences.

“I really like the rigor of the program, but it’s definitely not for anyone who is easily stressed, because it’s such a big commitment and it’s a lot of traveling, so having to go to two schools at the same time is a struggle,” Loh said.

Unlike the combined degree program with the SMFA, students receive degrees from two separate institutions — a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science from Tufts and a Bachelor of Music from the NEC. As a result, students in the program attend two separate institutions as full-time students, with course requirements to meet at each school. This means that for Loh, an average day is packed from morning to night.

“Most of us take about nine or 10 classes, so usually Monday morning I’ll start at NEC with choir at 9:30,” Loh said. “We usually have an ensemble at NEC or a lesson or music class, then we come back to Tufts. Depending on the day, if I have rehearsal at night or a concert, sometimes I have to go back again and then come back again. The traveling is kind of a struggle that can get really frustrating.”

Tufts/NEC students are exposed to two different campuses, student populations and schedules on a daily basis, resulting in a course load and a college experience that is far from traditional.

“To balance everything, you have to pick and choose. Sometimes I want to take more classes and do more stuff at Tufts but I just cannot commit because I have class. So you kind of have to split yourself and sacrifice a lot of social things. I wish that I could spend more time in clubs, I think the friendship most people get from clubs is where I really lose out on since I’m not in any. I have some really good friends at Tufts, but I definitely feel closer to people at NEC because I’m a singer so the singers are always together,” Loh said.

Because of the severe differences in course content for many combined degree students, they spend their time on each campus doing very different things.

“Rather than information-based classes, most of the classes at the conservatory are skill-based. This means that attendance is the most important thing for NEC classes, in order to develop the musical skills being taught,” Brown said. “At the conservatory, the students spend most of their time outside of class practicing (for performance majors) or writing (for composers). It is hard to balance out the amount of time that should be put into music with the classes at Tufts, but it is possible.”

Although there is a significant increase in course load, Brown finds that he enjoys the experience overall.

“I am more happy than stressed. Even when I am very stressed, I understand the value of the program I’m in. There is a lot of added stress, because it is like doubling the work load of any liberal arts college student — plus, practicing music never stops,” Brown said.

However, Loh remarked that with a small group of only eight Tufts/NEC students, the program faces several administrative challenges.

“I think, because the program is such a small program, that Tufts tends to overlook us as a program and that’s a huge thing we’ve been facing,” Loh said. “They’ve placed all their emphasis on [the SMFA] dual degree and the NEC kids are constantly neglected by the administration. It is competitive to get into, and I think a lot of people don’t want to do it because of the distance between the two schools, so they’d rather do a dual degree program where it’s like two schools in one.”

The most significant issue that Tufts/NEC students have faced this year is transportation between the schools. Specifically, the shuttle stop at the NEC was removed last semester, according to a Sept. 29 Daily article.

“We used to have the shuttle, but then they stopped stopping at NEC, so now they have given us Lyft options as a temporary solution, which was really helpful, but last semester we had to walk from the NEC, which is like a mile, just to catch the shuttle and that was very frustrating,” Loh said.

The NEC stop will be reinstated after area construction is completed, while students have been granted $1,000 stipends for transportation for the 2017–18 academic year, according to an Oct. 12 Daily article.

Cetlin felt that the Tufts administration’s handling of the transportation issue has shown that changes that affect the combined degree students are made without proper dialogue and communication.

“There’s literally no communication with the administration, so we’re basically on our own. It gives us a lot of autonomy, but at the end of the day if we need something fixed — like we did last semester because the shuttle got stopped — then there’s really nothing we can do. We’re supposed to have really efficient transportation between the two schools and we don’t,” Cetlin said. “I think the biggest issue is administration, whenever they make changes, they don’t communicate that to us, they’re not open to a dialogue with us until much later and even then that dialogue like really doesn’t amount to much.”

Associate Dean of Undergraduate Advising Robin Olinsky, who oversees advising for Tufts/NEC combined degree students, was quoted as describing the support that students receive from the administration of both schools in an Oct. 12 Daily article. She added that she had actively worked to address students’ concerns.

“We realize transportation has been a challenge so far this semester,” Olinsky was quoted as saying. “We appreciate students’ patience while we have worked through these unexpected difficulties. We’re confident that the solution we are rolling out will address these concerns.”

Despite the issues that the combined degree students have faced, Loh said that she is satisfied with the program overall.

“I do really like everything I’ve learned, and I don’t think I’d be as happy if I just picked one,” she said.

Cetlin concurred, adding that the additional effort that he has to put in has paid off thus far.

“I’m happy with my experience in college, but there’s obviously ways that the program can be improved. It’s not advertised at all so most people don’t even know what NEC means, when I tell them I’m dual-degree here, they think I’m SMFA. I’ve been able to make the most of it I feel like, so I’m content with it, but you definitely have to put stuff into it to get stuff out of it,” he said.

Brown also agreed that he would do the program over again if he had the chance.

“I am extremely happy with the program, because of how much both sides fit my interests. It is an invaluable experience that is truly not replicated anywhere else. The expertise at both schools is phenomenal and the different ways of thinking found at the schools molds the dual students into creative problem solvers,” he said.