When Emma Wu steps into Folsom Field for commencement, she’ll be wearing not one but three graduation tassels—white, orange and red—representing three distinct degrees in three different CU Boulder colleges.
She’ll walk away with a whopping 170 credits (42 more than it takes to graduate), a bachelor of science in technology arts and media (TAM) and bachelor of arts degrees in economics and strategic communications.
As if that’s not impressive enough, she managed to get it all done in four years, taking eight classes her last semester alone, while working two jobs and maintaining a 3.5 GPA.
“It feels pretty great to be done,” she said Wednesday in English, one of the five languages the petite, seemingly tireless 22-year-old speaks.
Born in GuangXi, a rural Chinese province, Wu attended school in China until the beginning of second grade, when a severe flu landed her in the hospital for two months and forced her to miss a year of school.
Bright and hard-working already, she caught up quickly, moving straight into third grade when she and her family moved to Los Angeles.
There, she learned Spanish from friends in the neighborhood and Cantonese from her grandmother and cousins. Then came Japanese, on top of her first language—Mandarin.
Upon arriving at CU Boulder, she had her eyes set on computer science, but within a week she concluded the major was not for her. The pressing question: What was the major for her?
In search of an education that would nurture her technological abilities as well as her creativity and love of working with people, she dabbled in advertising and communications classes in the College of Media Communications and Information, economics classes in the College of Arts and Sciences, and technology and design classes in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.
Then, her junior year, she posed a question to an advisor.
“I said, ‘how many majors are we allowed to have?’” she recalls. Theoretically, she was told, there was no limit. “I said, ‘OK. I guess I can do all three then.’”
She built her complex plan around a TAM degree, a transdisciplinary degree that allowed her to play at the intersection of technology and the arts. To refine her skillset further, she focused on user experience, a nascent field that aims to keep the human end-user in mind through each stage of the design.
“Emma personifies our ideal TAM student,” said David Schaal, lead multimedia instructor at the ATLAS Institute, where the program is housed. “She’s persistent, inquisitive, passionate and never shy about asking for help.”
To get a better sense of what those end-users want, she turned to advertising and communications classes at CMCI. With hopes of someday launching her own international company, she saw an economics degree and a business minor as perfect complements.
Making it happen was no easy task.
“I was pretty much maxed out every semester,” she says.
When a few classes she needed weren’t available at the right time, she took online community college classes at night to fill the gap. She also went to summer school one year, taking 24 credits. Senior year, she took 60.
In the end, she says, she got precisely the education she wanted.
“In every college, every advisor and every professor were super supportive. I couldn’t have done this otherwise.”
After graduation she plans to move to New York City and pursue a job as a digital designer. Ultimately, she’d like to help develop web technologies that are easier for all users to navigate, including those with visual and hearing impairments. But first, she’ll take a well-deserved break.
“I want to go out for a good dinner, and then I just want to lay around for a week.”