Finding your focus on the Farm

March 3, 2010, 12:59 a.m.

It has none of the novelty of freshman year, less of the academic rigor of junior year and nothing close to the nostalgia of senior year. But sophomore year—sometimes the overlooked, lost year in an undergraduate career—can be a bellwether for the remainder of the Stanford experience.

“It’s a transition year between the breadth of freshman year and another year of slightly more in-depth exploration before they choose what their major might be,” said President John Hennessy. “Some of the excitement and novelty that occurs during freshman year become somewhat more accepted and students turn their attention even more heavily to extracurricular activities as well as to their academic studies.”

Finding your focus on the Farm
Toyon is home to about 150 sophomores. For many sophomores, their second year has been all about finding their footing. (ARNAV MOUGDIL/Staff Photographer)

That’s the “sophomore experience,” distilled in a University sound byte. It’s an accurate trajectory for many sophomores, but the on-the-ground experience of many students of the Class of 2012 is more nuanced, with students having to strike the proper social and academic balance and find their place within the Stanford framework.

The Transition Year

“Sophomore year…it’s like you’re stuck in the middle, like being the middle child. What is our place?”—anonymous sophomore

It’s a question Elizabeth Ann Fox, associate dean of Undergraduate Advising and Research, is trying to answer. An architect of the “sophomore experience,” Fox has the job of working with the class presidents and Undergraduate Advising to construct programs that help sophomores find their place at the University, or at least nudge them in the right direction. She—in conjunction with the class presidents—planned Sophomore Celebration, Majors Night, Sophomore Symposium and Sophomore Faculty Dinner.

“We ask students to wrestle with the seeming contradiction of being a member of an intellectual community while simultaneously asking themselves questions that no one else can answer for them: where do my individual curiosities lead me? What is my disciplinary focus?” Fox said.

Those are some of the major questions for students. The mindset shift comes first.

“It’s kind of expected that you grow up your sophomore year,” said Alex Larrave of Haus Mitt. “Freshman year, you have all these people ready to cater to your interest. I realized that this year people are going to stop holding my hand.”

That realization, that the Neverland of freshman year and solidifying a friend base is over, can be a big change. This year, there’s more at stake—academically and with extracurriculars.

Larrave, an archaeology and religious studies double major, said that she was an anomaly among some of her friends—she knew that archaeology was her academic interest coming into college.

“I’m a weird exception because I’m declared and know what’s up,” she admitted, explaining the research she’s been doing with a post-doc.

“I decided that this year, I was going to become one of those people who did really cool things,” Larrave laughed. She spread her wings sophomore year and joined Amnesty International in the fall after seeing the fliers at the Activities Fair in White Plaza.

The rush freshman year to get involved with friends and groups “is translated to sophomore year with having to choose a major and have an academic plan,” said sophomore class president Taylor Goodspeed.

That academic pressure—which comes from all areas, whether it be administrative or personal—is weighing on the minds of many, especially those who are still exploring classes without a direct focus.

“Sometimes I get a little nervous that I’m doing it all wrong,” admitted Tori Pennings, a recently declared Earth Systems major, of her academic approach. “I’m doing well in classes and I talk to my professors, but I’m not as involved as they say you should be.”

For students like Pennings, sophomore year is the extended litmus test for whether a particular major is the right fit. That’s been the case for Alfredo Martinez.

Listening to Martinez talk about his major and involvement with Relay for Life, you would have no idea that just a year ago he was a map-wielding freshman who got lost trying to navigate his way from Tresidder to his all-frosh dorm in Larkin.

“I’m much more comfortable here now,” Martinez said. “Sophomore year is a much more enhanced experience—you have stronger relationships with faculty and you’re more established socially.”

Martinez’s plan his freshman year was to double major in history and international relations. He scrapped that plan this year and decided to just focus on the former after taking a class with history Prof. Al Camarillo.

“We really hit it off and I’ve been in almost constant communication with him,” Martinez said of his now-adviser.

Finding Your Focus, Not Your Footing

As she was folding name placards for the Sophomore Faculty dinner last week, Goodspeed smiled as she recounted her outlook on this year.

“You’re coming from your home freshman year and now this is home,” Goodspeed said, surveying the Sophomore Cabinet working to assemble chairs and place settings in the Tresidder Oak Room. “That’s been my biggest change in mindset this year.”

“Coming into Stanford, I didn’t know what to expect from college—I had a really idyllic view. I was really overwhelmed, was meeting so many people and I didn’t know what to get involved in,” Goodspeed said.

Then Goodspeed joined student government and things fell into place.

She said sophomore year was more about finding her focus than her approach freshman year, when she was trying to get her bearings.

“I took random classes freshman year, and I have no idea why, in retrospect,” she laughed. “This year it’s a lot more targeted.”

But honing in on a major comes with the added pressure and difficulty of using sophomore year as an exploratory time.

“Sophomores are generally working to develop a sense of purpose,” said Greg Boardman, Vice Provost of Student Affairs. “This search for purpose results in students seeking an academic identity in the form of selecting a major, pursuing new relationships and narrowing their extracurricular activities. All of these take time, and as academic, social and extracurricular expectations increase, students find themselves continually prioritizing and sacrificing.”

On this front, Goodspeed said she’s feeling the heat.

“This is the only chance you’re going to get to take Swahili or Sanskrit,” she said. “It’s a dual mindset, where you have to realize that you have to both explore, but still be looking toward the future.”

The Social Scene

Jeffrey Sweet, a current resident of Murray, says that sophomore year’s social dynamics are a marked shift from the hallway-bonding interactions of freshman year.

“I’ve grown closer to certain communities, particularly to the Jewish communities,” Sweet said. “It’s been great, but a lot of the camaraderie of freshman year has been reduced.”

Sweet lived in Serra—a four-class dorm—his freshman year and said that due to the relatively few freshmen, there was a tight-knit dorm community built on collective experience and residence. But this year, forming friendships is different.

“I think sophomore year you’re building relationships not so much on proximity of closeness, but on the proximity of interest,” Sweet said.

“You definitely get a more defined friend group this year,” agreed Chamal Samaranayake, who lives with his six-person draw group in Crothers Memorial. “All your friends aren’t living in the same place so they have to make an effort to come see you.”

Plus, sophomore year is a welcome breath of fresh air from the blitz social interactions and frantic rush to attend every single frat party and up your friend count.

“Sophomore year is calmer,” Martinez said. “Freshman year, there was a lot of…energy. There were massive study groups. I remember staying up late. Now I focus more on extracurricular commitments.”


When Holly Ho entered sophomore year in Robinson this September, she was hoping that the 2009-10 academic year would be completely different from her freshman experience.

“I’m not sure where my head was freshman year and my mind was so scattered—I was always stressed,” she said. Ho, like many freshmen, was working through a difficult long-distance relationship, which was emotionally taxing.

But this year, academics are the focus. As an electrical engineering major, faculty interactions and academic involvement are a natural byproduct of the coursework.

Ho says she’s feeling the benefits.

“I kind of feel like I’m reliving a more sophisticated version of freshman year,” Ho said.

For Pennings, a member of the cross-country team, sophomore year has been largely about personal development—something Fox calls the hallmark of the sophomore experience.

Freshman year centers on group actions—and the shared, defining benchmarks, from fountain hopping to Big Game. During sophomore year, the individual comes more into focus, inviting a level of introspection after a blur of new experiences. With their friend base intact and a general sense of how the University system works, the challenge sophomores face is more subtle than in the prior year, perhaps, but no less significant. Freshman year is the point where students acclimate themselves to the Stanford rhythm—sophomore year is the point where students center on how their personal contributions sync with that rhythm. And that begins with taking a moment and realizing that’s okay.

“I think over the year you come to realize that this is real life,” Pennings said. “Not every day, every minute has to be really exciting or packed. A big part of sophomore year is to refocus on yourself and be comfortable with who you are.”

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