The Sophomore Experience

By Susan Hagstrom
January 8, 2003

Our sophomore year in college is when we learn how to tolerate our own imperfections and integrate them into our sense of self. It is a time when we divest from our family and invest in our community, a time when we look with new eyes at our interests, values, and preferences. So explains Dr. Chris McLean, a psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services and coordinator of academic and career services at CPS.

Dr. McLean was one of four panelists speaking on the Sophomore Experience at the November 20th Colloquium on Undergraduate Education. The Colloquium sought to answer questions such as:

  • What are the developmental issues common to this population?
  • How can we promote communication with students not typically connected with a department?
  • How can we support students as they explore and make decisions about their majors?
  • What are the pedagogical issues related to Sophomores in the classroom?
  • How can we support the development of community among students no longer living in the residence halls?

Moderated by Steven Botterill, Associate Dean for the Undergraduate Division in the College of Letters & Science, the panel consisted of faculty, staff, and of course, a sophomore. L&S Peer Adviser Charlotte Lin talked about her own experience during her second year at Cal. Charlotte went to a high school that prepared her well for the academic challenge of Cal. However, she says she was not prepared for the large college environment and the lack of personal guidance here at Berkeley. Charlotte described the pressure faced by sophomores who are trying to figure out their interests, learn about different academic fields, and decide on a major, all while trying to graduate in four years. "I feel like I wasted classes during my first year here and I'm still not happy with my major. Now I'm afraid I won't graduate in four years."

According to Dr. McLean, Charlotte is right on target developmentally. During this critical year, students are butting up against their own limitations and are confronting the sometimes unpleasant realities about college. Sophomores at Cal are often trying to balance work, school, and the challenge of maintaining their own household for the first time. McLean reviewed the issues that sophomores typically bring to counselors at CPS: 82% come to discuss personal concerns; 52% want to talk about academic issues such as grades, skills and majors; 25% are there to explore career issues. "Being human, being there for the students is so important at this stage," maintains McLean.

McLean's sentiment was shared by Carol Dolcini, major adviser for the French department. "I sympathize with these students," stated Dolcini. "They are filled with fear about how to decide which of their interests to pursue. It can be hard to admit indecision to your peers." Dolcini feels that these students' needs are best addressed by talking directly. "They need to laugh. They're so serious!" Dolcini tells students in introductory French classes to come speak with her about anything, and they do. Some have even asked that she call their parents and tell them that it's okay to study French.

Physics Professor Bob Jacobsen has taught a range of classes from huge lectures to 6-person seminars. He has noticed that sophomores are extremely varied as a class. Some sophomores "really have their act together and are like upper division students." Others are easy to overlook because they are still in high school mode, afraid to ask questions. "This group is focused on memorizing everything." Jacobsen believes that most academics do not know how to deal with students who are having trouble coping with the many changes and doubts they are undergoing. He notes that pedagogical issues can revolve around getting this group of sophomores to "move along," in spite of the many different things getting in their way. "Students think that they are making a permanent decision when they choose a major," sighed Jacobsen. "There really is no tiger behind the door. Our job is to remind them that they're choosing among good things."

As the Colloquium came to a close, the panelists were offered a challenge: if the college received a multi-million dollar gift, how would each use it to benefit sophomores? The answers? Open up additional classes for sophomores. Create more courses to introduce each major. Keep upper division courses small. Offer more small classes to help students understand the context in which the courses are embedded.

The next Undergraduate Division Colloquium will be in February 2003, on the topic of Faculty-Student Interactions.

The L & S colloquia, which take place once or twice each semester, provide opportunities to learn about and discuss the overarching issues affecting undergraduate education at U C Berkeley. For more information on upcoming or past programs, contact Alix Schwartz at or (510) 642-8378.

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