By Jo Calhoun
For most college students, the first year is a total rush. New place, new space, new friends, new freedom. It goes by in a flash — one long strobe light effect.
After the adrenaline of year one, there are very few welcome-back parties for sophomores. Roommates are new. Neighbors have changed. Three more years stretch out ahead; it’s time to get serious.
Some students enter college single-minded about their professional goals and fall lock-step into required course sequences and major expectations. Most students start college with, at best, a vague notion of the kinds of courses they like. They know where they’ve excelled in the past and where they have failed. What they love most (playing in a band, hiking, skiing, doing community service, reading) may or may not translate into an academic course of study, let alone a career path. Even if students have found courses that excite them, they may see no correlation to a future direction. Think about how little life experience you had when you were 19 years old.
This uncertainty is compounded by the expectations of others. Parents get restless about how the tuition dollars are getting spent. Colleges and universities set deadlines by which students must declare a major course of study. Legislators lament about 4-year graduation rates. Student loans loom large.
Sophomore year can be a time of angst for students. Parents and families may “pile on” by pressuring their students to make decisions about majors and careers now. This can result in students feeling paralyzed — better to make no decision than to make the wrong decision. Inertia becomes a strategy for pushing back on pressure, and “sophomore slump” results.
There is another path — the “slump” is avoidable! Parents and families can become effective coaches by encouraging their students to actively embrace a year of exploration and self-examination. For students to have a strong sophomore year, they need to develop an emotional focus and do the hard work of translating their passion into a profession. Here’s how you help:
When you are a teenager without significant life experience, you don’t always understand that most choices are reversible. Students may postpone declaring a major or a career direction, fearing that it’s a permanent choice that can never be undone. Of course students can change majors. Of course students’ (and adults’) career direction will change multiple times. Right now, your students are making a first choice, not the only choice ever. Change isn’t just possible; it’s probable.
First, because this is a great life skill, but also so that they can see their sophomore year as a creative process, and a time for growth and reflection. Everything is not clear. The “right” path is not obvious. This is because there is so rarely (if ever) only one right path.
The point is not to wait passively for a bolt of magical insight, but to take intermediate, manageable steps that will inform their direction later. Here is a checklist of tangible steps your students can take to stay out of a swamp of inertia:
Have some fun with this! You both have to respond to these “5 Things” topics — during a coffee talk, on a road trip, around the dinner table: 5 things I’d love to learn; 5 places I’d love to visit; 5 jobs that sound intriguing to me; 5 summer “dream jobs”; 5 people I could talk to about their career paths. These topics may lead to others. The point is to keep talking, to keep clarifying, to keep eliminating and expanding possibilities.
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