At age 26, and wrapping up a Liberal Studies bachelor’s program at Capilano University, Melanie Ledding’s career path is wide open. So it’s fascinating that for her graduate project, she’s chosen to examine a figure (well, figurine) that has had limited professional prospects throughout its 57-year existence: Barbie.

“Mattel likes to say that ‘Barbie shows that a girl can be anything and do anything, and we’re always at the forefront of the type of jobs Barbie can do,’” says Ledding. “But when you actually go back and look at the Barbies they have put out and the jobs they have given her, they tend to not be very progressive at all.”

Ledding began investigating brand mascots as part of her final year Bachelor of Liberal Studies tutorials. Initially focused on the anthropology of food and the issues of food security in Canada, Ledding chose the pancake mix icon, Aunt Jemima, as a focus of her tutorial on gender and racism in food advertising.

“The parallels that I’m drawing between [Aunt Jemima and Barbie] represent how the establishment only really changes when they feel there is a lot of pressure from the main power groups in society,” says Ledding.

Liberal Studies BA students’ one-credit tutorials project generally share a common theme and inform their culminating grad project. Ledding admits she surprised herself by going off course after exploring the controversial Aunt Jemima, leading away from her intended the topic of food and towards the ultimate plastic stereotype for her final project. She says the departure is representative of the journey the Liberal Studies BA program has offered.

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“Every time I take a class in the LSBA, I always think it’s going to be about one thing—I always take away so many different things than I expected,” says Ledding.

Build-your-own BA

“The kinds of students who tend to gravitate towards the Liberal Studies degree are, broadly speaking, self-starters—people who are really interested in carving out their own educational path,” says program chair Aurelea Mahood.

Mahood often describes the program to prospective students as a way to “build your own BA.” As a result, the direction changes Ledding experienced within her graduate project are commonplace.

“It’s not uncommon for students to realize ‘I kind of had the sector or the topic right,’ but to learn that there is a whole other world,” says Mahood. “It’s a very broad interdisciplinary undergraduate experience.” With three years of graduates out the door (the program launched in 2011), Mahood says the Bachelor of Liberal Studies is starting to see students whose graduating projects represent a “thoughtful intersection of future goals, which often involve graduate or professional degrees.”

Advisory edge

For Ledding, a key differentiator of the Liberal Studies BA program has been the experience of working closely with Capilano University instructor Nanci Lucas throughout the tutorials and her Barbie-focused grad project.

“When you work with students in tutorials, you can help shape and direct them with something they are very interested in,” says Lucas. “I see them flower with being able to control their own destiny and the direction they want to go. You don’t get that in a lot of undergrad degrees—you typically have to wait until grad school.”