photo of George Lucas with a motion picture camera

Everything I need to know about creating my own bespoke college program I learned from George Lucas & J. K. Rowling

If you don’t know what your major is because you don’t know what you want to do in life, this blog post will not help you.

But there are students who do know exactly what they want to do in life, they just don’t know which college department can best help them get there. If that’s you, then take a lesson from George Lucas & J. K. Rowling.


I am not an Adviser for any College Department. I do not hold a degree in Education. I am not even Tenured Faculty. I am simply a Lecturer with a few ideas. I hope these ideas can help a few students, but I can’t guarantee anything. Your mileage may vary.

Star Wars

When George Lucas wrote his script for the original Star Wars, (now known as “Episode IV: A New Hope”) he went to every studio in Hollywood and pitched his idea.

And one by one, they all turned him down.

Finally, Lucas got to the last studio in Hollywood: 20th Century Fox. Where a Fox executive said,

I know all about your movie, George. Everyone knows all about your movie. Because you’ve pitched it to every studio in Hollywood and nobody wants to make your picture. But you know what? I’m going to let you make your movie. We’ve got a picture coming out that’s going to be huge. It’s called Damnation Alley. After Damnation Alley hits there’s going to be so much demand for sci-fi films. We’re going to need films like Star Wars.

photo of author J. K. Rowling in front of a Harry Potter poster
J. K. Rowling, image:

Harry Potter

J. K. Rowling sent the manuscript for Harry Potter to every publisher in London. And they all turned her down. And finally, she sent it to the last publisher in London. The editor there didn’t read it. But one day his young niece came by the office, so he gave her the 1st 20 pages and asked her to read it sometime and tell him if she thought it was any good. She came back the next morning and said,

I need the rest, please.

Damnation Alley

The fact that you’ve never heard of Damnation Alley, or that if not for some London kid with a voracious reading appetite we might never have heard of Harry Potter, these are great stories, but they are not my point for you and your college career.

My point is that if George Lucas had pitched his movie to one less studio, or if J. K. Rowling had sent her book to one less publisher, our culture might never have known about the universes of Star Wars or Harry Potter. But Lucas & Rowling did have the courage and the self-confidence to dust off their bruised egos one more time and pitch their ideas again.

These stories of their successes are so wonderful that I hope they’re not apocryphal, but even if they are, I still think they’re great lessons for how you can create your own bespoke program even within the seeming straightjacket of a CSU catalog.

If George Lucas can pitch one more Hollywood Movie Studio, if J. K. Rowling can pitch one more London Publisher, then I believe that you can pitch your unique vision of a college career to more than one University Department to find the program that lets you awaken your inner Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter.

Here are a few examples:

Television Set Decoration

How do you start a career in Set Decoration? Do you need a college degree at all? Or can you just dive in? I’m sure people do both. Let’s say you would like to do some study first. Well, there are degrees in Set Decoration, for example:

Seeking out a program like one of these might be perfect for you. But perhaps for financial or other reasons, you’ve chosen to pursue your Set Decoration career at a school like Long Beach State University that doesn’t have a Set Design or Production Design Major. The Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) offers a list of suggestions for elements in a Set Design career. UCAS suggests coursework in areas like:

  • Interior Design
  • Fine Art
  • 3D Design
  • Architecture

UCAS also suggests getting practical experience and building a portfolio through activities like:

  • student theatre or film
  • local amateur or community theatre
  • low-budget independent films
  • experimental or ‘fringe’ theatre

What departments at a school like LBSU might have pieces of your puzzle? Architecture might be good, but LBSU doesn’t have an Architecture Department either. But LBSU does have:

  • Interior Design
  • Technical Theatre
  • Film & Electronic Arts
  • Studio Art
  • Art History
  • Fashion Merchandising

You could write your own 120-unit plan that uses elements from each of these departments as fuel for your career in college and beyond.

Art Therapy

What if your interest in both Psychology and Art makes you think about studying Art Therapy? The American Art Therapy Association will tell you that you need a master’s degree to practice Art Therapy. And they’d be right. But what if you’d like to do Art Therapy related work? Or what if you’d like to get a Pre-Art Therapy BA or BS degree on your way to that master’s degree? There are colleges that offer those degrees too. Here are some lists:

As with Set Decoration, there are schools, even at the undergraduate level, that offer degrees in Art Therapy. But once again, let’s say that for financial or other reasons, you don’t want to go to one of those schools, you want to try to create a program for yourself at a school like Long Beach State University.

LBSU doesn’t offer an Art Therapy degree. What programs does LBSU offer?

  • Counseling
  • Recreation & Leisure Studies
  • Art Education
  • Studio Art
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Communications

And let’s say that given your particular identity, interests, and life path, you’d also be interested in offerings from:

  • Chicano & Latino Studies
  • Women’s, Gender& Sexuality Studies

That’s a lot of strong programs from which you could develop your 120-unit plan for a meaningful and useful degree program.

InfoTech Your Way

A school like Long Beach State University doesn’t have a major called “Television Set Decoration,” or “Art Therapy,” but if you’re interested in InfoTech, there are majors like Computer Science, Computer Engineering, and Information Systems. Depending on your exact interests you could study in the College of Engineering, or in the College of Business Administration. And for most students, this is probably the best way to go.

But maybe you have specific interests that aren’t quite covered by any one department. Maybe you really want to dive deep into Linux, or Ruby, or Microcontrollers, or Entrepreneurship. Or maybe you love to code, but you’re also in a band and you think it’d be great to design keyboards and other new musical instruments the way technologists like Ray Kurzweil have in the past. In addition to some CS classes, you’d like to take some classes from LBSU’s Cole Conservatory of Music. And you’d like to find faculty in these and other departments that you can do independent study projects with to focus more deeply on your unique career path.

It’s a miracle college catalogs exist at all

The ideas I’m presenting here are not for every student. And they shouldn’t be. The university catalog at LBSU or any other college or university is a masterpiece of dedication and vision. It’s almost inconceivable how many faculty members pour extraordinary hours into the crafting of the myriad details that make up our college catalogs. At several hundred pages, a college catalog can seem daunting, but in fact, there are thousands more pages that all work together to create those hundreds. Faculty at LBSU and other schools work hard to create relevant programs.

Still, because of the massive and protracted project that a college catalog is, at best, it is always out of date. It takes a long time to update a catalog. And it’s worth remembering that the crew of the Titanic saw the iceberg a couple of hours before they struck it. If they’d been in a speedboat it would only have taken a twist of the wrist on the steering wheel and they could have avoided disaster.

Big ships, like the Titanic, and University Catalogs, turn slow. Careers in the 21st century turn fast.

Your Adviser can only do so much

Your adviser has a tremendous amount of power. They can help facilitate a lot for you. But it’s unrealistic to hope that advisers at a large university can sit down and write bespoke programs for students. Or tell you which program best leads to your unique career & life goals. That’s on you.

Your Bespoke 120 Units

If you think you want a bespoke college program, then write it!

A BA or BS degree is about 120-semester units. No matter how brilliant your program is, nobody is going to give you a Bachelor’s Degree for 90 units. Back when I was in school, you could hang around taking different classes and graduate with 160 units. Those days are gone. These days we focus on Timely Graduation, which I think is code for “it’s really crowded here, so hurry up and get out.” Which isn’t bad advice anyway. Finish college and start your career. Or if you do want more school, then instead of a forever Bachelor’s degree, finish and then do a Master’s.

Whatever program you want to write for yourself, make it come out to 120 units, or just a little bit more. Maybe 132 at the max. Closer to 120 might be even better.

What to include? Start by reading the current catalog. Put together a suite of General Education classes that meet your interests. Closer to the catalog is probably easiest, but only if it meets your criteria. It’s funny that at the university students can sometimes feel like powerless servants, when in fact, you are the customers, and the faculty and staff are just baristas here to help you get what you want.

And then from the many campus departments, put together a focused program that achieves your goals. Try to focus on active learning. Minimize your time sitting in lecture classes and maximize your time in labs and studios where you can be learning by doing. Think about independent study with professors you connect with. Think about Internships and Studying Abroad.

When you’ve got your 120-unit program mapped out, then write some text about what your goals are, what work you want to do at the university and beyond, and why you feel the need to write this individual program for yourself.

photo of George Lucas with a motion picture camera
George Lucas, image:

Pitch the Studios! And Publishers! And Departments!

Now it’s time to summon your inner George Lucas or J. K. Rowling. Pitch every studio that has the potential to make your movie. Pitch ever publisher that has the potential to publish your novel. Or in our case, make appointments with the advisers in every department that’s part of the bespoke degree program that you’ve written and pitch that program to them.

Make an appointment, and then email them your proposal in advance in case they’d like to read it beforehand. Maybe the Film & Electronic Arts Adviser won’t quite see your Set Decoration vision, but the Art Adviser will. Or maybe the Art Adviser won’t be so sure about your Art Therapy vision, but the Psychology Adviser will be down with it. Maybe you’ll find an adviser in Computer Science & Computer Engineering that will let you do everything you’ve spelled out in your InfoTech plan.

Never underestimate the value of great storytelling

Besides having enough self-confidence to take repeated rejection and keep pitching their idea anyway, there’s something else that George Lucas and J. K. Rowling have in common. They’re both great storytellers.

As you’re busy mapping out the details of Set Decoration, or Art Therapy, or InfoTech, or any other specialized thing you’d like to pursue in college, be sure to also tell a great story. The details matter a lot. But they only matter if you can contextualize them with a great story.

If you want to make a movie, you can always hire someone to stand in front of the camera, to point lights, or to record sound. But if you want more than a hired crew, if you want people who are true believers in your vision, you’ve got to tell them a compelling story about what your vision is and why it matters.

If you create a great story about why you’re pursuing this plan, you have a shot at convincing advisers and faculty members to join you on your quest. And most importantly of all, you might convince yourself too. A great story can make you a true believer in your own quest.

Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master

If George Lucas or J. K. Rowling had taken “no” for an answer, we might never have met Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. If you accept a standard college major for your answer, things might turn out just fine for you. But if you’re interested in something different, if you don’t want to follow the heavily worn road, but want to forge your own path here in your 21st century, then maybe finding a department to enable your own bespoke program is the best path toward discovering your inner Jedi Master.


2 responses to “Everything I need to know about creating my own bespoke college program I learned from George Lucas & J. K. Rowling”

  1. cristinamolina9 Avatar

    this post is so inspirational

    1. Glenn Zucman Avatar

      Thanks, Cristina! I hope it helps!
      Sometimes it’s good to follow a map. Sometimes it’s good to make your own choices. Sometimes your choices will be better than the map, but even if they aren’t, they’re still your choices, and that can be so empowering! 😀

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