Sophomores confront decisions, changes during transitional year

Many view sophomore year at the College as a transitional year. The first-year experience at the College is very well defined, marked by entry life and new experiences. Junior year is often thought of as a time during which students study abroad, serve as Junior Advisors (JA), entrench themselves in their major studies and take advantage of what the College has to offer. Senior year is characterized by job searches and preparation for life outside of the purple bubble.

While sophomore year also has significant milestones, including declaring a major and making other decisions that serve to define the remainder of students’ time at the College, the sophomore experience is far from uniform. A lack of strict guidelines and schedules often causes sophomores to turn inwards and contemplate the role they want to serve at the College and how to best go about achieving their goals.

“Sophomore year is kind of a pivot year – pivoting from a community that is constructed for you to a community you construct for yourself,” Dean Bolton said. “It is also a pivoting year academically, where your choices used to be wide open and you could take a little bit of everything you were interested in, and now you need to be more directed in choosing courses, as your academic identity deepens in particular fields.”

Sophomore slump

One of the terms frequently used to describe students’ second year at the College is the “sophomore slump.”

Andy Schneider ’12 said he didn’t believe a sophomore slump existed heading into sophomore year, but came to understand it as the year progressed. He described sophomore year as “a sort of transitional time between having everything presented to you during freshman year, and having to get out there and take the initiative to do new things.”

“Being stuck in your comfort zone: I think that’s what the sophomore slump is all about,” Schneider added.

On the other hand, Katie Aldrin ’12 described her sophomore slump as the frustration she felt with extracurricular activities. “Freshman year, you feel like you can really go in and change the system if you want to,” she said. “Sophomore year, you just get tired. Williams really starts to feel the same, or at least it did to me.”

Aaron Freedman ’12 also described not having the same energy he did as a first-year with regards to both extracurricular activities and social life, which he said felt like a slump. However, he added that the shrinking size of his friend groups and participation in activities allowed him to focus more on that which was most important to him. “Confronting the question of what Williams means to you can make you feel like you’re in a slump,” he said.

Some students, including John Mackessy ’14, hold a more negative view of the sophomore slump, one correlated with underperformance in academics, athletics and social life. Mackessy said that sophomore year has led him to question his major declaration decision and his commitment to his sport.

“The only reprieve I feel from these daunting questions is the fact that when I do find time to talk to my sophomore friends, some tend to feel the exact same way,” Mackessy said.

April Jenkins ’14 also attested to feeling the sophomore slump, adding that her experiences this year have gone through “peaks and troughs.” “There was a time when it was really awful,” she said.

Other students say they did not experience a sophomore slump. “I loved sophomore year; for me, there was no such thing as a sophomore slump,” Amanda Reid ’12 said. “I felt it was the time when I was able to finally come into my own at Williams, and with the strong base of my entry I was equipped to branch out and create my own social experience.”

According to Margaret Wood, co-director of Psychological Counseling Services (PCS), the term sophomore slump “doesn’t do justice to the variations of sophomore experience.” She added that the sense of infinite possibilities that first-years often hold has subsided. “Looking back and assessing, you may be dealing with a volcanic year of social or academic fallout, or, alternatively, regretting that you didn’t explore the hinterlands of possibility and try yourself out more,” she said.

Francesca Barrett ’12, College Council (CC) co-president, said that by addressing the topic of mental health on campus, CC hopes to begin to discuss the sophomore slump as a large problem on campus.

Jenkins said that the recent Mental Health Committee event, You Are Not Alone, helped her recognize that she was going through a sophomore slump. “I didn’t realize it before,” Jenkins said, “but I think this event really helped us break the facade of perfection and say ‘Hey, a lot of stuff sucks right now.’”

Post-entry life

The transition from the entry system to upperclass dorms can come as a shock to many sophomores. Second-year students at the College live outside of their entries, presumably with peers they have chosen to reside near in a neighborhood of their choosing.

Jenkins made the analogy of sophomore year as akin to a price ceiling model, “where the entry system is the price ceiling.” Freshman year, “you can drop below your equilibrium point, but the entry is going to stop you from falling too far,” she said. “[During] sophomore year that price ceiling isn’t there as much, and it’s more challenging to do it on your own.”

“It’s really like getting the rug pulled out from under you,” Adrian Castro ’14 said.

For some, this drastic change from freshman year can lead to “entry withdrawal.” “I was worried about post-entry life, because I was so attached to my entry last year,” Emily Jablonski ’14 said. “However, I’ve gained a new sense of independence while still maintaining friendships with so many entrymates.”

“Sophomores leave behind the institutionally structured support of the entry system,” Wood said. “While some can feel empowered to branch out, others may feel unmoored and adrift.”

According to Barrett, CC “will be exploring the possibility of a sophomore house on campus and whether that addition would be beneficial on campus.”

Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass said that the concept of a sophomore housing unit came up during the neighborhood review process in 2009-2010. The idea was tabled, however, as it required significant attention that fell outside the purview of that group.

“I think it’s something that would require significant and very careful evaluation before we’d ever look into making that kind of major change to our housing program,” Klass said. “I’m not inclined to go there right now. Of course I’d be happy to join the CC conversation to the degree possible if they do want to take that on in the last few months of their administration.”

Declaring a major

Sophomore year is filled with academically defining decisions, one of the most prominent being the declaration of a major.

“For some, [declaring a major] is an affirming declaration of purpose and identity,” Wood said, “while for others it may be fraught with doubt and conflict, both internal and external, with family expectations and hopes.”

Emily Norkett ’14 described the major selection process as stressful, saying that she was torn between majoring in something expected and easier to fulfill – Norkett is pre-med, so she is already on her way to completing the requirements for the biology major – or majoring in something she would be able to enjoy over the course of the next few years.

“I changed my mind practically every week last spring,” Norkett said. She settled on English at the beginning of this semester after realizing she was interested in several different English courses.

“I felt like the moment sophomore year started, there was no more room to play anymore,” Castro said. “We now have to consider so many things: picking a major, choosing courses strategically, etc.”

Meanwhile, for others, the major process was largely devoid of stress. “I’m a sociology and psychology double-major, and that’s what I’ve thought of myself as since freshman fall,” Aldrin said. “Filling out the paperwork just felt like a formality.”

Junior year options

Planning for junior year can be one of the most stressful parts about sophomore year, due to conflicting interests or simply the sheer scope of the possibilities. With study abroad programs in dozens of countries, a prestigious position as a JA or simply taking further advantage of classes and time spent with friends at the College, these options often plague the mind of sophomores.

The application process for JAs occurs during sophomore year and thus is an integral part of the sophomore experience for many.

“I applied to be a JA and didn’t get it,” Aldrin said. “That was probably one of the best things to happen to me at Williams. It’s easy to get caught up in the glamor of the JA process as a sophomore … Being a JA is like winning a trophy – or at least it seems that way when you’re a sophomore.”

Reid also applied for JA, and, although she was selected, she turned down the opportunity in favor of studying abroad. “In the end, the desire to be a JA was more of a desire to give back and recreate something that could not be recreated, and I decided it was not what was really best for me and my emotional, intellectual and social experience at Williams,” Reid said. “I remember feeling really guilty because it was such an honor to be chosen and such the Williams thing to do, but honestly I got over that useless guilt pretty easily.”

Being selected as a JA can cause stress for some. “The real stress started when I found out that I actually was going to be a JA and started to do all of those JA activities in the spring of sophomore year,” Schneider said. “Some of my friends were unaffected by it, but others felt like I had betrayed them and left them in some way, and that was hard.”

The decision of whether or not to study abroad is also typically made during sophomore year. Some students view their time abroad as a much-needed reprieve from the College that enables them to more critically examine the College and its offerings.

“While I was abroad, I started to miss Williams,” Aldrin said. “Being away helped me put Williams in perspective – the good and the bad. There are so many things that matter at Williams that only matter at Williams.”

Aldrin added that she felt excited upon returning to the College. “I think that if I hadn’t decided sophomore year that I needed to study abroad, I would be having a much worse time now,” she said.

Reid described her time abroad in Bali as “the most amazing, challenging, life-changing experience.” She added that she feels sophomores should make decisions for their junior year based on what they feel is best for them, “not what the administration tells you … is the quintessential  ‘Williams experience.’”

Staying on campus during junior year is also a viable option, although it often has a negative connotation. “I think making the most of your time here is an underrated option,” Krista Pickett ’13 said.

Pickett said that she has many friends this year who, as juniors, decided not to go ahead with their study abroad plans for the spring semester because they want to spend more time on campus. “Among my friends, it became more of a trend to stay here,” Pickett said. “We only have four years here.”

However, Pickett believes that most juniors, no matter what path they choose for their junior year, “are ultimately happy with it.”

Sophomorientation

To help new sophomores gain a better grasp of the inevitable challenges they will encounter and make known to them the resources that they can use to help in their decision making processes, Sophomorientation was created. Started by Emanuel Yekutiel ’11, the program completed its third year this past fall with a record turnout.

Pickett served as the chair of the SophomOrientation organizing group last year and worked with the deans’ office to make sure the program would be continued for future years.

Class of 2014 CC representative Teddy Onserio ’14, sophomore council members including Jenkins and Castro and other sophomore leaders were instrumental in organizing this year’s event. Both Jenkins and Castro attest to the fact that several events had double or triple the participation than last year’s event.

Castro said that the sophomore year speech given by Assistant Professor of Political Science Justin Crowe ’03 was “the highlight of the event” for many sophomores who attended. “He went through the sophomore slump period, the whole JA versus study abroad decision,” Castro said. “I think he was the best person to give that opening speech to us.”

Identity search

According to Wood,  “Sophomores often struggle with becoming their own person, apart from family expectations and pressures from others. They often are in search of personal meaning after a lifetime of following a straight, prescribed trajectory.”

“You might find yourself questioning everything you thought you knew about yourself,” Wood added. “But a period of uncertainty and doubt often gives way to a more grounded sense of self in making and committing to decisions such as choosing a major, going abroad, developing relationships and continuing participation in extracurriculars that matter to you.”

Rick Spalding, chaplain to the College, said he views sophomore year as “a spiritual journey of sorts.”

“The threshold between youth and adolescence is a time when really big life questions come to the surface,” he said. “Many of these big life questions are questions that we spend the rest of our adult lives answering … These are questions that no one can answer for you.”

Spalding described sophomore year as “a time when you’ve taken a step or two away from both the womb of your family and also the womb of your entry. You’re standing much more autonomously than you did your first year.”

Spalding said he believes the College “in so many ways runs on the energy of sophomores … There is a huge debt to sophomores because they keep so many of our most reassured resources as a community going.” Spalding regards this as a “wonderful gift” to the College but also cites it as a pertinent danger to the mental and physical wellbeing of sophomore students.

“There’s no Harry Potter spell to cast to make these demons go away, but it is always helpful to bring yourself under the company of those who are cheering you on and helping you gain perspective on what you’re up against,” Spalding said.