Saturday marked the launch of the College’s new Sophomore Year Experience (SYE) initiative. The program aims to ease the transition from students’ first to second years by providing sophomores with opportunities to foster engagement with faculty, peers and the community. The idea of SYE’s itself is commendable, as it recognizes the problem of the sophomore slump. Nevertheless, as it stands, the program and its architects have failed to meaningfully engage with and combat the difficulties unique to sophomore year at the College.
Although many college students struggle with the transition between freshman and sophomore year, the sophomore slump is particularly severe at Williams. As a result of the entry system, first-years often experience an excess of institutional care. Entries are structured to be organized, familial communities that support — and possibly coddle — first-years as they make the otherwise challenging transition to college life. When sophomore year begins, much of that institutional care vanishes. Sophomores have housing coordinators, but this role is far more impersonal than that of Junior Advisors (JA), due to there being fewer housing coordinators per student, among other major differences. As students move out of the entry system, they may lose a sense of community that the neighborhood system has failed to replicate.
The decision to either go abroad or become a JA looms over sophomore year for many students. Due to the sharp dropoff in institutional care, sophomores are left to make these important decisions — and to declare majors and concentrations — without much guidance. Concerns over junior year make it difficult for sophomores to enjoy their present experiences.
The SYE program should address this lack of institutional attention to sophomore year itself. Instead, Saturday’s SYE event centered around information sessions about studying abroad, declaring a major and finding a career, which only aggravate the sense that sophomore year is merely a precursor to junior year. The problem SYE aims to address is the sophomore slump; it should focus on sophomore year rather than on looking ahead to junior year.
Rather than predominantly consisting of information sessions, SYE should have been designed to unify the sophomore class. After freshman year, many first-years only know students who lived in their buildings, and often feel distant from the other half of the class. SYE should combat this problem by hosting fun, community-building events for the sophomore class. Information sessions are important, but they should be separate from the sophomore orientation program. In the future, entries can also help ease the transition by having more discussions about the changes that loom as freshman year draws to a close.
Along with the structure of the program, the timing of SYE was inapt. The event, held the weekend after the first week of classes, came too late in the school year and started too early in the day; it is unrealistic to expect college students to attend an event at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Instead, the sophomore orientation program should run throughout the whole year, with the first event scheduled — at a reasonable hour — on the day before classes start. This would serve as an early sign of institutional support, and a small retreat would begin the process of creating a sense of class togetherness. As the year continues, SYE should continue to host enjoyable, relatively unstructured events to unite the sophomores. For example, SYE could bring back the Sophomore Formal, last held for the Class of 2017, or plan campfires, a trip to Sky Zone or a sophomore-only breakfast on Mountain Day, to make up for the lack of entry events. Although school-sponsored events often have low attendance, exclusive events for particular classes, such as Frosh Formal, are usually popular, as are unique fun events, so programming for sophomores, if done correctly, could draw many members of the class.
To diminish the influence of junior year, SYE could reinvent sophomore year as the year of academic exploration. In addition to class bonding events, SYE could host academic events for sophomores. For instance, junior and senior majors could host more events for potential majors to foster a sense of community in a given department. With this programming, along with better advising and encouragement to explore different areas of study, sophomore year could come to be defined as the year in which students declare majors. SYE’s event Saturday, which only 29 students attended, demonstrates a lack of understanding among the administrators on the committee. They should listen more closely to student voices on the committee, which can communicate ideas for more class-wide events on behalf of their peers.
SYE would need funding to plan events like these. As it stands, the Office of Student Life (OSL) allocates funds to neighborhoods rather than to specific class years. However, students often do not have strong ties to their neighborhoods and, as a result, attendance at neighborhood events is generally low. OSL should redistribute some of the neighborhoods’ funds, allocating them instead to the sophomore orientation program.
A more extensive sophomore orientation program directed at strengthening class unity and reimagining the year as an academically explorative one would not only ease first-years’ transition to sophomore year, it would also benefit transfer students. The program would facilitate their integration into their class as well as all sophomores’ integration into the greater College community for years to come.