Walking her own path

Independent Scholars
Sophia Cabana

SUMMARY: Independent Scholar Sophia Cabana Cultivates Cross-Cultural Experience in Transformational Self-Designed Major

Sophia Cabana is fascinated by global and cross-cultural studies, which is a perfect fit for the unique approach to learning found in JMU’s Independent Scholars major.

Independent Scholars provides undergraduate students with guidance while maintaining freedom to explore and take responsibility for their education. “There’s no way to drift through this major,” Sophia asserts. “It’s individualized, and because you have so much freedom, students need to make a lot of tough decisions about how to ask cosmic questions swirling around inside themselves.”

Professors and peers are there to help tackle the difficult questions. “It’s amazing because, ultimately, your inquiry project is entirely up to you,” she says. “But you participate in this program with all sorts of creative students and faculty members who may be enthralled by ideas and activities drastically different from yours.”

Sophia’s interests are rooted in history. She grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, a few miles from the historic Old Town area, and a short walk from George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. Her mother is an ethnic Uzbek from northern Afghanistan who came to the United States after the Soviet invasion of her country in the 1980s. “My mom always valued learning and used to read to me all the time. She took me everywhere with her, and made really great food,” recalls Sophia. Her father introduced her to dinner-table philosophical conversations. “Both of my parents got me interested in other cultures and made me ask big questions pertaining to theology, ethics, and government.” They also taught her the importance of treating people as independent individuals.

Sophia completed an advanced diploma from Mount Vernon High School, earning along the way the International Baccalaureate (IB) certificate and some dual enrollment credit. She is a recipient of the President’s Award for Educational Excellence. “I had this really amazing world history teacher during my first year of high school named Mr. Lynch,” she remembers. “I was terrified of him at first, but he was actually very interesting, open-minded, cultured, and knowledgeable. He was deep into Buddhism and other world religions, and he also loved the European Renaissance. I wound up going on an Italy school trip with him, and it really fired my imagination.”

Sophia recalls she didn’t know very much about how to find the right college. She initially thought she wanted a small school environment, but then changed her mind after visiting JMU and seeing Carrier Library. She was mostly looking at in-state options because of how much she loves Virginia.

At JMU Sophia connects with many of the professors in the Honors College and College of Arts and Letters. “There are honestly so many professors who have made a profound impact on me that I’d be hard pressed to even list them all out,” she says. Sophia is double majoring in Independent Scholars and History, with a minor in Honors Interdisciplinary Studies. “As an Independent Scholar, I’m studying a mix of anthropology, religion, and art history, especially as it relates to colonialism and multi-ethnic empires.” She is advised by the remarkable Dr. Wren River Stevens, a JMU professor of Art History and Director of the Madison Art Collection and Lisanby Museum. Sophia interns at the Lisanby during the school year. Dr. Stevens, she says, has “a very nurturing and relaxed personality. She’s been very enthusiastic about taking me under her wing and helping me develop as a young scholar. She’s seen potential in me that I may not have noticed within myself, and she’s constantly inspiring me to learn more about the world.”


Wren Stevens recalls, “I first met Sophia when she applied to be an intern for the museum. “From that first moment I was struck by her energy and openness to ideas. She wanted to be a part of everything because she loved everything.” Her advisor says that Sophia has brought a deep passion for learning, an engagement with the history of humanity, and a desire to make the world a better place. “I look forward to seeing her insights about how climate influences culture, specifically in the arts and architecture of the ancient Near East.”

Sophia found Independent Scholars to be a perfect way to structure an ambitious program of study. “I didn’t want to just take a bunch of electives with no purpose,” she says. “I initially wanted a minor in art history, then sought one in religion or ethics … and then considered the public history concentration. I wanted at least six minors and had no way of doing that. I tried to get a department to let me design my own minor, and obviously I wasn’t allowed to do that. My mentors instead pointed out that there was a way for me to make my own major, and sent me to Independent Scholars. So here I’ve stayed!”

These days, Sophia Cabana describes herself as a student of society and sociability. She increasingly finds herself fascinated by religious and ethical expression in human cultures. “The variety is what dazzles me,” she says. “I really feel like everything in the world is very intimately connected to everything else.” Sophia is laying plans for her life and learning beyond JMU, exploring different options such as working in museums, studying international trade law, joining the Peace Corps, or joining a nonprofit.

“I like to be a bit spontaneous and figure things out as I go along. I find that my life works out better when I remain open to every possibility.”

Sophia has other talents as well. Drawing, painting, collaging, and scrapbooking are some of the things that consume her free time. She’s designed extraordinary artwork for the literary magazines on campus – Gardy Loo and Sister Speak – and also likes to write poetry. She’s gotten things published in different places – the Keezell Review and Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things – she says, “just for fun.”


Every time Sophia travels, she totes along a big journal, into which she inserts original sketches, jots notes, and glues found things. Art, poetry, and journaling, she says, are small ways to get to know herself better and develop inspiration for future artistic endeavors. “I really like telling stories, especially true ones, which is the reason I love studying the human experience through history and cultural studies, and also the reason why I love making art. I feel like all objects hold the impression of their maker within them. I love putting little pieces of myself into everything I make and then looking back at all my past creations and watching myself evolve and grow into the person I am today.”

“I’ve always been a bit too free spirited for the one-size-fits all type of education we see in most schools. I’m drawn to big ideas and less to details,” Sophia remarks. “I walk into every class ready for a discussion or debate.”

Sophia knows there are a few things she’d like to accomplish in her personal journey that could potentially overlap with an ideal career. “I like to share my ideas with others and put those ideas to the test. I can also be quite competitive, not necessarily in a way that involves comparing myself to others, but definitely in a way that’s competitive with myself. I know the person I am when I leave JMU will be different from the one I was when I left high school, and I hope the person I am a decade from now has reinvented herself a couple more times.” Sophia is excited to move into the world, continue learning, and use the extraordinary education she’s received at JMU to do phenomenal things.

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Published: Saturday, August 17, 2019

Last Updated: Saturday, January 2, 2021

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