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Thought freshman year was rough? Get ready for 'sophomore slump.'

For many Duke students, year two can be a tough one.

Headlined by challenges like more rigorous classes, declaring a major, maintaining first-year friendships amidst new selective housing affiliations and beginning to scout out study away, DukeEngage, research or career-oriented opportunities, it’s no wonder why sophomore year might find several students in a slump.

Deb Lo Biondo, associate dean for West Campus, wrote in an email that she believes many sophomores suffer from a lack of a common experience, with students scattered across West and Central Campus. 

“Maintaining meaningful connections with peers and faculty or other adults on campus tends to be harder during this year of much decision making,” she wrote.

Accelerating academics

One such decision every sophomore must make is choosing a major.

A lot of students think they know exactly what they are going to do [upon first arriving at Duke], but after a year it may become clear to them that their current path is not working, explained Senior Advising Associate Jen Hoff. 

Although FOCUS and first-year seminars target community-building, she said there aren’t really any comparable programs designed to help [sophomores] “put it all together,” leaving them in a state of developmental confusion.

Hoff added that she believes the major declaration process weighs on the minds of students because students may feel as though they have to pick the right thing to get to where they’re going, even if they don’t necessarily know where they’re going. She explained that although the emphasis students place upon their major decisions is probably a bit excessive, it is certainly understandable.

“If [students] have been thinking pre-health for many, many years, they think, ‘Well I’ve wanted to do this since I was six years old, so now I have to follow through on that, right?’” she said.

But beyond just selecting a major, sophomore year courses tend to be more difficult than first-year ones, particularly for pre-health students or students pursuing other pre-professional tracks at Duke.

Hoff explained that many students who feel they have to do pre-health also think they have to focus heavily on the natural sciences and slog through a series of classes that they may find difficult and not as rewarding. 

‘The busyness factor’

On top of the more rigorous academics and major-related decisions Duke already requires of its sophomores, second years may be voluntarily biting off a little more than they can chew.

Thomas Szigethy, associate dean and director of Duke Student Wellness Center, said that sophomore year often affords students their first leadership opportunities within various Duke clubs and organizations. Once school starts to pick up, sophomores may suddenly have a lot more things to get done on their agendas.

“It’s not just marginalized to their academics. It’s the busyness factor,” he said.

Szigethy went on to explain that sophomore students might hit a wall if their process is “do-do-do-do-do” before they finally get to a point where it is no longer humanly possible to get everything done that they’re seeking to get done. This is when students become sleep-deprived, and they now have so many things to do that they cannot make up that sleep. From there, students either continue to try to do everything on their plates until they crash or they come in to see DuWell.

He added that eventually students’ bodies will tell them if they’ve pushed themselves hard enough, as evidenced by a winter break survey administered by DuWell that reported students frequently recovering from illness during the first two weeks of winter break.

"I think there’s a mentality that ‘my health can wait,'" Szigethy said. "But if [students] had actually paid attention to their health ahead of time, they could have avoided the sickness."

Re-establishing community

Several students recalled their experiences with leaving behind the community-fostering comfort of East Campus for what awaited them on West or Central Campus.

Senior Hope Arcuri explained in an email that the nurturing community of East Campus makes it easier for students to run into people they know, grab meals with them and simply plan time together. She added that without an upperclassmen presence on East, certain Duke social pressures—including selective living groups, being overly committed and beauty standards—aren't as obvious or impactful.

“Most people will give you the time of day, and everyone is struggling to figure out the whole ‘college thing’ together,” Arcuri, who is writing a book about her experience as a sophomore, wrote.

Upon taking up residence at Central Campus for her sophomore year, Arcuri wrote that she struggled to maintain her friendships with several classmates who lived on West and found that making new ones on Central was equally difficult.

Arcuri praised the Brodhead Center for serving as a common meeting place for upperclassmen, mirroring the Marketplace experience and making the meal transition from freshman to sophomore year a little bit better.

Sophomore Elliott Davis and junior Zoey Kang both echoed Arcuri’s struggle.

Davis wrote in an email that although he has been presented with the academic, extra-curricular and professional opportunities his sophomore year, he has also found it difficult to meet up with current friends or make new ones upon leaving East Campus.

Kang—who wrote in an email that the most difficult part about her sophomore year was the scattering of her first-year hall all over West Campus—explained that the experience has taught her about the importance of staying open to making new friends.

“Of course, [living apart from your best friends] just lends itself to developing deeper relationships with those you either weren’t close to before or those you didn’t know,” she wrote.

For some students, transitioning away from East Campus might solidify some existing relationships in favor of others. Junior Cheenu Tiwari wrote in an email that he grew much closer to his first-year friends that had continued onto join a residential block with him on West Campus. 

A lot of the friendships made during the first year are harder to maintain later on because everyone gets busier, but the people a student is able to stay close to, such as the members of their block, become extremely close friends, Tiwari wrote in an email.

Reflecting on the slump

When asked what comes to mind when they think of the “sophomore slump,” students gave varying answers.

In junior Briana Kleiner's opinion, the slump is best described as a roadblock during the second year of college—like hitting a wall of exhaustion.

“You get so tired of the countless hours of work, and begin to slack off. You get frustrated easily and you let the academic rigor consume you emotionally and physically,” she wrote in an email.

Arcuri held the opposite view, however, arguing that the slump is more emotional and social than academic.

She explained that although these emotional and social effects might sometimes manifest in lower academic performance, Arcuri and her friends’ sophomore slumps were not necessarily characterized by decreased academic motivation or performance.

Sophomore Joanna Li explained that though the first year is marketed as a year for growth and exploration, becoming a sophomore is like suddenly being thrust into the cold reality. Students are all of a sudden expected to be equipped with the professional and social knowledge of navigating life, she said.

She likened the transition to the move-in process at Duke.

“Freshman year you get a bunch of FACs to carry your stuff, and then the subsequent years you're expected to just do everything yourself,” she wrote in an email.

Responding with solutions

Arcuri offered her opinion on how many of the complaints associated with the sophomore slump might be avoided going forward for those struggling with it now. If more students were willing to admit that they are not alone with the sophomore year struggles, she said, then they would be better able to lean on one another through hard times. 

“The phrase makes you think that it's a season of life where you're unmotivated and lazy, and I knew that would never be me. And then I actually got the sophomore slump and I realized it has nothing at all to do with motivation and laziness," she wrote. “I realized that not only was this happening all over Duke, it was happening all over college campuses around the U.S."

Lo Biondo reiterated Arcuri’s claim, explaining that the “sophomore slump” is a common occurrence on most college campuses across the country, as affirmed by much research that has been conducted over the past decade on the sophomore year experience.

Duke is already leading the way in developing initiatives to combat the slump in response to this research, she added. 

In 2007, Duke initiated the Duke Social Relationships Project (DSRP), a four-year study and collaborative effort between members of the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and the Division of Student Affairs to learn more about the association between social relationships and feelings of loneliness and belonging in college.

Lo Biondo cited one particular finding of the DSRP—that students who are more passionate for their academic work and who had developed a relationship with a faculty member were less lonely and tended to be more engaged. She noted that this finding was the basis for originally initiating the FLUNCH program and faculty outings as new Duke student programs, in addition to making the Faculty-In-Residence (FIR) program more robust.

She added that the DSRP findings collectively inspired the development of Duke’s Sophomore Year Experience program, which has already been benchmarked by several other universities since its inception.

Lo Biondo wrote that if she could add another initiative to the current programming for Duke sophomores, it would be to add more FIR’s to the upperclassmen campuses along with more living learning communities.

Arcuri pitched in some ideas of her own for new student programming that might better facilitate the transition from freshman to sophomore year, including a “mentor/buddy” system of individual juniors or seniors being assigned to each underclassman and upperclassmen-led discussion sessions about different topics such as social life, health and nutrition, campus involvement and academics.

She explained that just having someone older who has been through the sophomore slump can help make a student more comfortable with opening up about it.

“The only way I got through sophomore year was by talking to two seniors every week,” she wrote. “They literally counseled me through that season of my life, because they had been there and they knew what to say.”

Despite all the sophomore slump may present to students, it may also have its own silver lining.

Kleiner wrote that although classes will become more challenging during sophomore year, students should not let the pressure of doing well outweigh the importance of taking care of themselves.

She encouraged her fellow students to live not just for the memories they make academically, but for those special ones with people and events that they will look back on and treasure for the rest of their lives.

Junior Ines Jordan-Zoob reflected on the best parts about being a sophomore.

“You feel more established on campus, and tend to have more direction than freshman year. You are also less pressured by the career and recruitment opportunities of junior year," she said. "So make the most of it. Go to one cool speaker event a week, and hang out with your friends. Enjoy your time, because when sophomore year ends, you're already halfway done with Duke.”


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