October 7, 2020

YAO | Sophomore Slump It Up

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Sophomore year is the awkward, forgotten middle child of the college experience. A new batch of eager-eyed freshmen has stolen the spotlight, pushing away the flock of washed-out students scrabbling for the last dregs of first-year excitement. The illusion of community that North Campus fostered doesn’t exist anymore as we scatter across the West Campus dorms and Collegetown apartments. Some friendships wane and the novelty of young adulthood grows stale. Classes increase in difficulty, seeding doubt into half-formed plans for major affiliation. At the same time, there’s no more excuse for struggling. We passed the trial period —freshman year. We should know how to play the college game by now. Right?

This “sophomore slump” is not unique to Cornell. According to a 2012 nationwide survey by the consulting firm Noel-Levitz, 25 percent of college sophomores reported feeling either uncertain about their place or unenergized with classes. Furthermore, the support and encouragement that colleges try to provide to first-years tend to subside, even as the stakes grow higher. Thus, the sophomore slump is seen as a major factor in attrition during second year, especially for undecided students.

In the past, some schools have started to find ways to bridge the gap between freshman and sophomore year. Ohio State University, for example, implemented a sophomore-exclusive program, where students engage in weekly meetings with faculty, learn career skills, and obtain funding to conduct an individual project. Dartmouth University requires all students to spend the summer following sophomore year on campus, where they can connect with members of their class, delve into major requirements, and explore research opportunities. Cornell could learn a thing or two from these schools and make an active effort to show sophomores that they haven’t been deserted.

Even during a normal year, we sophomores are expected to make choices that will mold the latter half of our college careers –– and maybe shape the rest of our lives. At Cornell, most undergraduates face pressure to declare their major sometime during spring semester of second year. Within the span of a few short months, we’ll suffer through a dozen quarter-life crises before finally picking a course of study. Most of us will sign our souls over to the Ithaca landlords and learn to face the repercussions while others resign themselves to the housing lottery. Some of us might even decide to study abroad during junior year and scramble to adapt our schedules.

With graduation still three years away and without a definite life plan, staying motivated to navigate these decisions is hard enough during a normal school year, and this year is far from that. Online schooling brings its own major obstacles. Many professors have entirely changed their teaching styles and exam formats. Zoom fatigue runs rampant, draining away whatever energy there once was to learn. At least in my case, conversations on screen seem to have a stilted quality impossible to erase.

As someone taking classes away from Ithaca this semester, it takes far more effort than usual to maintain the connections I managed to forge last year. The weekly emails I get from the dorm I would have stayed in had I been on campus serve as stark reminders that I no longer have a solid community to rely on. More days than not, it feels as though I’m muddling through the year alone without any idea of how it might end.

Freshman year, I listened to my advisors, the upperclassmen, the professors: I welcomed the confusion that college brought. It was a sign that life was changing for the better, and I was changing along with it. Now, I’m still confused –– probably even more so than last year –– but the feelings of uncertainty have morphed into something to fear. After all, is there a point in crafting elaborate study abroad plans or fantasizing over Introduction to Wines when everything could deteriorate at any moment?

I’m trying to remember that the answer to that question is yes, there is a point. We should always take any excuse available to daydream about day-drinking. What better way to forget about the state of the world? Jokes aside, perhaps the slump is a product of having so many of these different avenues to decide between and not knowing what the right answers are. Maybe it’s because we have to start seriously thinking about what we want out of our time at Cornell.

I know that these considerations and conflicts will most likely stay with me for the rest of my time here in some capacity. Who knows? I might never have a clear idea of what I should be doing. But maybe that’s okay. Right now, we sophomores are going through one of the most traditionally uncertain times of college during the most tumultuous time our world has seen in ages. Every day that we push ourselves through online classes and homework, and every time we question our goals for the future, will only make us more equipped to handle difficulties later on down the road.


Katherine Yao is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.