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Duke weighs in on sophomore slump phenomenon

Many students experience a sophomore slump due to stress.
Many students experience a sophomore slump due to stress.

Two weeks after Duke's newest freshmen packed the Chapel for convocation, the Sophomore Class Council welcomed back the Class of 2016 for a similar event—except for the dozens of empty rows behind the hundred or so students gathered near the front.

The sophomore convocation is one of several efforts to counter a trend widely known as the “sophomore slump.” Schools across the country have long grappled with the problem of a decline in students' motivation during sophomore year, launching new programs to ward off drops in retention. Duke students who may be mired in the sophomore slump are not alone, said Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek.

“It’s sort of a second-year phenomenon, and it doesn’t just exist in college,” Wasiolek said. “What has been reported is that the second year of doing something is generally not as exciting and uplifting and exhilarating as the first year.”

At Duke, the sophomore slump manifests itself in ways other than retention rates. The Social Relationships Project, which collected data from students between 2007 and 2010, offered evidence that sophomores do tend to experience a slump in their second year. Data from the project indicated that students felt a lesser sense of belonging and a greater feeling of loneliness during their sophomore year, said Deb Lo Biondo, associate dean of residential life for West Campus. One reason this might occur is that students are let down when their initial expectations are not met.

“If everyone’s saying it’s going to be such an amazing year, you might wonder why it’s not going so well for you,” sophomore Josh Kalejaye said. “You feel like you’re somehow underperforming, whether it’s not getting the grades you should be or not having the amazing social life you should have.”

Sophomores also find themselves in a unique position on campus. Freshmen are adjusting to the college experience and juniors and seniors are looking to the future, but sophomores are in “no-man’s-land,” Kalejaye said.

But the term “sophomore slump” misrepresents the complexity of challenges faced by second-year students, said Gary Glass, assistant director for outreach and developmental programming at Counseling and Psychological Services.

“There are a lot of phrases that catch some momentum: the freshman fifteen, the hook-up culture, the sophomore slump,” Glass said. “They are usually misleading, because to the degree that they are true, they’re not true for any single reason.”

Describing sophomore year issues as a "slump" suggests that it is unnatural to feel challenged during the second year, when in fact those challenges are a natural part of a student’s growth, Glass said. He added that every year comes with its own distinct set of issues.

In recent years, sophomores have comprised 28 percent of the undergraduates who use CAPS services, suggesting that sophomores do not use the services disproportionately more than other classes.

Senior Andrew Leon Hanna, who previously served as sophomore class president and helped to start the tradition of sophomore convocation, cautioned that the sophomore slump may act as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“It’s really valuable to acknowledge the things that make sophomore year a little more challenging,” Hanna said. “But it’s not good to ignore the opportunities that you have, and it’s also not good to resign yourself to the fact that your sophomore year is going to be a slump.”

On your own again

Although there is disagreement about the legitimacy of a slump, administrators and students alike agree that the sophomore year marks a pivotal transition for students.

Selecting a major is a large academic decision sophomores must make. That choice is more than just selecting a suite of classes, said Beth Fox, director of the Academic Advising Center.

“Choosing a major…is affirmatively choosing a scholarly community to join,” Fox wrote in an email. “It asks each person to sit quietly and be genuinely thoughtful about who they are as a scholar, and who they would like to become.”

Freshman year milestones are generally experienced as a group—move-in day, the class photo, and Writing 101, for example. The selection of a major is an individual affair, which causes stress and confusion for uninformed students, Fox said.

The sophomore year also represents a social transition, as students leave behind the close-knit communities of East Campus residence halls. After the first year, the sophomore class is scattered throughout houses on West and Central Campuses, Lo Biondo said.

The new housing model, which began last year, was created in part to allow unaffiliated sophomores a chance to return to a single house throughout their remaining time at the University. Lo Biondo noted, however, that it was too early to tell if the new model has had any impact on the sophomore transition.

Selective living groups and Greek organizations could help ease the transition for members.

“It provides an immediate sense of camaraderie in the dorm, so it’s not as much of a change from freshman year,” Hanna said. “For a lot of people who aren’t [affiliated], if they’re put in a house that isn’t quite as social, or their house council isn’t doing as much, then they’ll be in a situation where there’s not as much camaraderie. Instead of walking in your dorm and expecting a bunch of people hanging out and talking, you walk in and it’s silent and you go to your room.”

On the other hand, living groups can also divide students.

“Being affiliated can make it really difficult to connect with people when they’re in a different organization,” Kalejaye said.

Steps taken

In 2002, the University formed the Committee for the Sophomore Year Experience to identify the key issues that distinguish sophomore year. The 10 items recognized include major declaration and social acclimation, as well as opportunities such as study abroad, research and student organizations. The University has hosted events such as the Majors Fair to target theses areas.

In response to common transitional issues, the Sophomore Class Council has also set out to improve unity in the class.

Sophomore class events this year have largely had good turnouts, said current sophomore class president Isabella Kwai. She added, though, that attendance should not be the primary indicator of how effective events are, since students are frequently busy. The sophomore convocation was sparsely attended in part because of poor timing, as the event was held during Rosh Hashanah, she noted.

“We had a sophomore come up to us and specifically tell us how much he appreciated the convocation, and that it really gave him a sense of placement,” Kwai said. “That to us was an indicator that the event was really successful.”

Besides convocation, the class council also works with SYE to host events such as Fall Festival, Midnight Breakfast and a sophomore class formal. The council also plans smaller events such as breakfasts, dorm reunions and community service projects, Kwai said.

Class council events have seen success in past years. According to a survey conducted by SYE, the “sense of belonging” among sophomores increased by 25 percent the year that the first sophomore convocation, among other sophomore events, was held. Hanna, who was sophomore class president that year, estimated that larger events saw turnouts of over 400 students.

Help is out there

For sophomores who are struggling, Wasiolek encouraged self-reflection. Deliberate reflection could alleviate the "FOMO," or fear of missing out, that is prevalent among students faced with multiple pathways.

“[Students] try to figure out how to do it all because they fear missing out on something,” Wasiolek said. “I would advise students to, during their sophomore year, take a deep breath and try to assess what their first year was like, where they are right now, and what opportunities…they truly want to take advantage of.”

Campus resources that were introduced during the first year are still accessible in successive years, Wasiolek said. She suggested that the Career Center, the Academic Advising Center and various identity centers, such as the Center for Multicultural Affairs, are resources sophomores may be underutilizing.

Fox noted that last year, only a quarter of students in the Class of 2015 met with the directors of academic engagement in Undergraduate Global Advising, who specialize in global and civic engagement opportunities. A new advising website for sophomores will launch next year and have features to track advising meetings.

Academic engagement was also shown to correlate with belonging, according to the Social Relationships Project. Faculty outings, the FLUNCH program and other interactions with professors outside the classroom could help increase academic investment, Lo Biondo said.

Above all, students who are experiencing a slump should remember they are not alone.

“Share your thoughts, share your fears, share your hopes, share your confusions with each other," Glass said. "The thing that can really rob people of their own growth is the perception of conformity.”

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