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‘The lost class’: For incoming sophomores, a college life limbo

Sophomore Alex Buckley poses for a portrait at Northeastern University in Boston on Aug. 27. “I met the people that I met my first semester just by proximity,” he said.
Sophomore Alex Buckley poses for a portrait at Northeastern University in Boston on Aug. 27. “I met the people that I met my first semester just by proximity,” he said.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Emerson College sophomore Quinn O’Connor is still trying to figure out how the dining hall works; last year, the food was mostly grab-and-go. Marilyn Meyers feels intimidated by the three labs on her schedule this semester at MIT — she’s never taken a college laboratory class.

Sophie Coyne, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke, ventured into an academic building this week for the first time since she toured the campus as a high school junior.

“I literally don’t know where most of them are,” said Coyne, who lived on campus last year but took all her classes remotely. “I very much do feel like a first year with slightly more experience.”

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This year’s sophomores feel like strangers to many aspects of college life. Though they have a year of college under their belts, stringent pandemic-era safety restrictions severely curtailed their academic and social lives last year. They also missed the in-person orientations, traditions, and parties that typically welcome new students into the campus community.

Now, as they return to school for what they hope will be a more normal college experience, many are excited about the full dorms, completely in-person classes, and extracurriculars bursting back to life. But many also feel like they are already behind.

“The biggest fear is that we’ll be the lost class,” O’Connor said. “I didn’t get the [high school] senior stuff, but I also didn’t get the freshman stuff, so it was like, what do I get?”

Colleges in Boston, taking notice of the unique set of circumstances facing sophomores, are responding with new programming specifically for the class of 2024, including campus tours, revamped first-year traditions, and class-specific social events.

“I think that folks in the class of 2024 are going to say — and have been saying — what about us?” said Kenneth Elmore, Boston University’s associate provost and dean of students.

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BU sophomore, Dani Nadira of Methuen, talks with BU police sergeant Mike Vanaria during move in day at Boston University.
BU sophomore, Dani Nadira of Methuen, talks with BU police sergeant Mike Vanaria during move in day at Boston University.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

At Mount Holyoke, first-year traditions typically include an honor code ceremony followed by milk and cookies, as well as the gift of a plant. All these customs are back this year, and they’ve been extended to sophomores, too, said Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall. She said the college has also created “reorientation groups” where second-year students can ask questions and get campus tours.

“This is a different version of college life,” she said. “There is an expectation — under different circumstances — that sophomores might have figured out most of this stuff already.”

On Monday, Emerson held a resource fair and campus tours specifically for transfer students and sophomores. The idea, said Maureen Hurley, director of student transitions and family programs, was to introduce them to campus “in a way that they can touch and hold.”

“Sophomores are in a different place than they were last year, but they still have needs that haven’t been met,” Hurley said.

Lindsay Levine, a sophomore psychology major at Boston College, said she was heartened by her school’s efforts to re-welcome sophomores — such as taking a class of 2024 photo on Alumni Stadium after it was scrapped last year — but she still feels out of place. Last year, she had trouble joining clubs, and she missed out on the game days that make up a prominent part of BC’s culture.

“I get that there’s only so much they can do, but it just does feel like a weird limbo for my class, because we were on campus, but sort of, not really,” Levine said. “The juniors and seniors know what they’re doing here, and then the freshmen hopefully will get told by their orientation leaders, and then we’re just kind of like, ‘Hello?’”

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Boston College and Connecticut play an NCAA hockey game in an empty arena on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Storrs, Conn. This season, the stands are slated to be open to spectators.
Boston College and Connecticut play an NCAA hockey game in an empty arena on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Storrs, Conn. This season, the stands are slated to be open to spectators. Stew Milne/Associated Press

For some sophomores, this year will be their first taste of a standard college workload, as Zoom classes forced an adjustment of curriculums.

“I’ve taken very few non-open-note exams,” said Roger Burtonpatel, a computer science and music major at Tufts University.

Professors were lenient with deadlines and grading last year, said O’Connor, the Emerson sophomore, and she fears those accommodations may now disappear. “I don’t want to get whiplash from the pace of last year to this year in terms of academics,” she said.

Ditching Zoom is a thrill for Alex Buckley, a political science and journalism major at Northeastern University. He was abroad for the fall semester and on campus for the spring, when his courses were only partly in person, so he’s spent a fair amount of class time behind a screen.

“Even if there is more work and energy that goes into in-person classes, I just can’t wait for that,” said Buckley. “I want to be in class. I want to be interacting with people.”

Certain academic fields, like theater, were severely curtailed last year due to the restrictions on in-person meetings. Julian Simmons, a theatre arts major at BU, said he got few chances to perform.

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“I’m really excited to see what type of art we create this year,” he said. “We’re back on stage, so this is our moment to shine, this is our moment to come back, do what we’ve been dying to do.”

First-year social experiences, too, were hampered last year. At some schools, like Emerson and Northeastern, students were not allowed to enter residence halls where they did not live. At Mount Holyoke, students lived only in single-occupancy dorms and dining was take-out only.

“A lot of the people who I had met last year and friends that I’ve made, I’ve never even seen in person,” said Meyers at MIT, which is hosting “S’More Welcome,” an optional three-day program for the class of 2024 that will include events for sophomores to explore Cambridge and Boston.

Buckley said he spent much of his time on campus last winter holed up in his dorm room. Once cases started dropping toward the end of the semester, socializing became more feasible, but he said he has still yet to find his crowd. Northeastern is offering weekly social events to sophomores living in university housing and allowing them to attend “Welcome Week” events traditionally meant for first years.

“I met the people that I met my first semester just by proximity,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world if I don’t make it to a party, it’s fine — but I’m not going to lie, that’s obviously something I want to do.”

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The newfound freedom to socialize, however, feels daunting to some students. Ashley Soebroto, a journalism major at BU who is from Indonesia, said she got used to the isolation of COVID and now feels a mounting pressure to find a friend group.

“I filled up all [of] my schedule with the classes and clubs, trying to find every way to socialize,” said Soebroto, who was on campus for the spring semester, “but there’s this huge anxiety that it’s not going to work out.”

To mitigate their fears surrounding plunging into a more normal school year, some second-year students are choosing to be forthcoming about their relative cluelessness. “I’m not afraid to walk in a building and be like, ‘Can someone help me?’” said Tyy Hill, a visual and media arts major at Emerson who commutes to school from Roxbury.

Emerson College sophomore Tyy Hill on the Emerson College campus. Hill, a commuter student who lives in Roxbury, said that this year, she is “not afraid to walk in a building and be like, ‘Can someone help me?’”
Emerson College sophomore Tyy Hill on the Emerson College campus. Hill, a commuter student who lives in Roxbury, said that this year, she is “not afraid to walk in a building and be like, ‘Can someone help me?’” Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Even with the extra support, said Elmore, the BU dean, the onus is on students to do their part to acquaint themselves with college by exploring their campus and city and bonding with other sophomores facing the same obstacles.

“In years to come, you will have [had] an experience unlike anyone else’s,” he said. “You’ll be talking about it forever.”

With the Delta variant threatening yet another school year, Coby Hirsh, a civil engineering major at Northeastern, knows it’s possible this year “could end up a lot like my first.” And yet, he’s taken up an optimistic outlook, resolved to seize the chance now to get out and meet people.

“If that turns into a third freshman year at some point,” he said, “then so be it.”


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com