Chaplains’ Corner: To be a sophomore in a pandemic

Valerie Bailey

This week, I would like to focus my thoughts on the sophomore class, the Class of 2024. These are students who ended high school at the beginning of the pandemic and have spent all of their college days so far either sheltered at home, attending a virtual classroom, or socially distanced and masked in a kind of isolated state on campus.

When I returned to campus in August to welcome the first-year students, I met numerous people, many of whom I had never met in person.

“Are you a first-year student?” I would ask.

“No, I am a sophomore,” said a surprisingly large number of those students. I heard that refrain over and over again during the first days of the semester. People who I thought were first-year students would gleefully respond, “I am a sophomore, I am a sophomore.”

This year’s sophomore class is unique. In many ways, it’s four classes: the ones who were virtual all year, the ones who were virtual for part of the year, the ones who were in person for all of the year, and the ones who are members of the Class of 2024 because they are off-cycle.

The common use of the term sophomore describes the academic rank of the second-year student in high school or college. The word has a long history, and has a loose interpretation meaning wise fool. This definition is not quite fair, for sophomore year is the time when many students figure out their respective academic communities and, therefore, are more wise than foolish. But what happens if your sophomore year was spent in school, but alone — in school, but in isolation?

My sophomore year in college was a year of informed discovery. This was when I realized that the college plans I had devised in high school were unrealistic. By the second semester of my sophomore year, I was ready for a new plan. The mediocre grades in my science and math classes during my first year were the first clues that my biology major was not working for me. But the moment of clarity came during my work-study job in a poultry lab, when I realized that I did not want to go to work each day to look at hundreds of dead baby chicks. It was time to change my major.

At that moment, I did not feel wise at all. I felt very much like a fool. But I was practicing discernment and reflection, thanks to some of the lessons I learned in and out of the classroom. Eventually, I found my way to a major I liked and classes I loved, which led to moments where I experienced the challenges and joys of learning.

How do you become a sophomore during a pandemic? How do you figure out the rules when the rules keep changing? How do you figure out your place in the learning community if that community consists of two dimensional figures on your screen? How do you have conversations that challenge your thinking if you are always alone? And what happens if this uncertainty and isolation is the experience, not only of the sophomores, but of everyone in the learning community: the faculty, staff, and students? Could it be that all of us, in some way, are sophomores? We possess just enough information from our pre-pandemic lives to have some ideas and plans, but are still trying to figure out our place in this part of the pandemic, which, by the way, is not over yet.

So, sophomore class, Class of 2024, the members of this learning community whose learning has been most challenged by the pandemic: Perhaps we can learn something from you. Despite the pandemic, you arrived on campus this year ready to embrace college. You learned from your first-year experience, and you applied that wisdom to your sophomore year. For example, some of the sophomores I met as first-year students last year told me that they were going to sign up to help with orientation in 2021, because their first-year experience had been muted by the coronavirus. And many of you did just that. You were ready to greet the first-year class, and the world, with the declaration: Welcome to Williams College!

The rest of us at the College have a lot to learn from you, Class of 2024. “Sophomore” may be a natural state for you, but for most of us, we have to recalibrate our place at Williams from certainty to “kind of knowing what’s going on.” Perhaps the way forward is for all of us to say, “We are sophomores, and one day, we will, in this place of uncertainty, learn more about ourselves and our colleagues, classmates, friends, family, and neighbors.”

To be a sophomore is to stare down uncertainty and never lose hope that you are in the process of figuring things out. Wishful thinking will not make the uncertainty go away. And hope for clarity is not a sign of the end of uncertainty. A commitment to learning and discovery is at the heart of being a student. Wisdom can be an outcome to learning and discovery. Wisdom has been described as the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships and reach intelligent conclusions. If so, then the sophomore is well positioned to gain wisdom through uncertainty and the unknown. May we all be sophomores at this stage of the pandemic. And perhaps the Class of 2024 will show us the way.

The Rev. Valerie Bailey Fischer is chaplain to the College and Protestant chaplain.