BY LEAH PLATT
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LEE PELLEGRINI
Strike up a conversation with college students between their sophomore
and junior year, and one word is guaranteed to come up: panic. By
the end of sophomore year, they will tell you, campus life has become
a breeze. They have made friends, joined clubs, selected a major.
But then the doubts set in. Should I really be pre-med if I can't
hack organic chemistry? Do I have time to volunteer, hold a part-time
job, and keep up my grades? "It's a landmark age," says Susan Michalczyk,
an assistant pro-fessor who teaches sophomores in the Arts and Sciences
Honors Program. "They're turning 20. They're taking harder classes,
getting less attention, planning for the future."
"After your second year, you hit that sophomore slump," says Ann
Moynihan '03. "You realize, suddenly, that you only have two more
years of college, and it's scary."
Sophomore slump may be a universal rite of passage, but, for the
most part, colleges and universities don't have formal programs
to address the problem. Freshmen have orientation, seniors are rewarded
at graduation, but sophomores are often left alone with their confusion.
"We spend a huge amount of time at BC helping freshmen adjust to
campus life," says Bob Sherwood, the dean for student development.
"Juniors are just starting their major, so they can connect with
faculty, and seniors have support through career services. Where
does that leave sophomores?" This past summer, a new Boston College
program offered an answer. On the first weekend in June, 47 members
of the Class of 2003, accompanied by 10 student leaders (all rising
seniors), 13 faculty and staff, and a handful of spouses and children,
gathered for a weekend retreat, aptly named Halftime, to reconsider
the first half of college and look ahead to the next two years.
Halftime is part of the newly formed Intersections program at Boston
College, funded by the Lilly Endowment. The program is built around
the idea of "vocational discernment," or the way we make choices
about where we are headed.
In the Catholic tradition, the word "vocation" has a distinctly
religious overtone, often referring to those who dedicate their
lives to the Church. The Halftime weekend does have "an element
of spirituality to it," explains Burt Howell, the director of Intersections,
"but, in organizing the retreat, we used a broader definition of
'vocation.' Vocation is a life calling, based on one's talents and
abilities; a path that a student feels compelled to follow." The
notion of vocation is broad enough to encompass a range of students'
concerns--everything from career choice to family obligations to
the desire to "make a difference." "It's an idea that strives for
wholeness," says Howell. "It is not only about career, but that's
involved. It's not only about picking a major, but that's involved
too. It's not a sliver of life, but the whole thing."
Finding their life calling was not the first thing on students'
minds as they piled onto buses headed for Waterville Valley that
early Saturday morning in June, the rain that was not to let up
all weekend streaming over hoods and umbrellas. The first order
of business was waking up with the provided coffee and bagels, or
catching a few extra hours of sleep before the weekend's events.
A few hours later, dry and fed, the students gathered in a conference
room at the Snowy Owl Inn to begin the day's activities. Howard
Gray, SJ, his soft face obscured by steel-rimmed spectacles, acted
as the retreat's master of cere- monies. Before relocating to John
Carroll University in Cleve-land this fall, Fr.
Gray was the director of BC's Center for Ignatian Spirituality.
Along with Joseph Appleyard, SJ, the vice president for University
Mission and Ministry, he was a creative force behind the Intersections
program, which also includes seminars for faculty and staff and
funding for church-based student internships. To the circle of students
sitting cross-legged on the floor, Fr. Gray introduced the idea
of vocation as "the tune that you can't shake out of your head."
Finding that tune, he explained, can be a long, contemplative process,
or it can be an epiphany--"that moment in class when you've read
the particular poem or short story, or done the experiment, or understood
the historical perspective in a way that somehow feels like it's
More than the popular 48 Hours weekend retreat for freshmen, with
its focus on building community, Halftime is an individual experience.
Sophomores are assigned to small groups, each facilitated by a student
leader and a faculty or staff member, but much of their time is
given over to personal reflection. The weekend is organized as a
three-part cycle, prompting students to consider, in turn, the defining
moments of their lives thus far and the relationships that have
been important to them, and then to imagine what the future will
hold. Each segment includes an hour of free writing, in a green
journal embossed with the Halftime logo. Students settled in on
plush couches or cozy window seats around the inn, recording their
thoughts on questions like "What moments, events, or experiences
during your past two years at BC have been the most positive for
you?" and "What do you hunger to achieve?" As instructed by Howell
at an introductory meeting on campus, they had brought photographs
of themselves, taken between the ages of two and 20, doing things
they liked to do, or posing with people important to them, and they
were prepared for hard reflection. The empty volumes chosen for
Halftime were thick, leather-bound, and durable, to convey the message
that they could and should continue to have a use long after the
bus returned to Chestnut Hill.
Searching for personal vocation (or, as Fr. Gray puts it, identifying
where your talents and desires meet the needs of the world) doesn't
stop at graduation, of course. As observers and facilitators, the
faculty and staff at the retreat--who came from departments ranging
from Nursing to A&S Honors to campus security--found themselves reflecting
on their own career choices and family commitments. "Some of the
adults had been dealing with death or divorce," says Susan Michalczyk,
who attended the retreat as a facilitator, "and some had been in
careers a long time and were thinking about life changes." In fact,
says Howell, "No one seems to be finished with the discovery process."
But, he adds, while the idea of vocation may be just as powerful
to a young parent or a recent retiree as to a college student, "the
focus of the conversation is going to differ depending on where
the particular group is at."
For the sophomores on the Halftime weekend, discussions invariably
circled back to the challenge of balancing family expectations with
individual ambitions. "Family life was one of the biggest concerns
in my group," says Justin Li '02, one of the student leaders. "It
kept coming up, even if I said we were moving on. Everything seemed
to relate back to parents and childhood." According to Terry Witherell
'86, MA'93, associate director of the Career Center, if the weekend's
discussions got heated, it was only because students were letting
off steam. "There are demands on students that weren't there 15
years ago," she says. By sophomore year, "students are already worried
about loans, and how their major will affect their earning power."
Indeed, the sophomores at Halftime described feeling near-constant
pressure from their families to make money, or go into the family
business, and above all to do something practical with their degree.
Clara Perez '01, who attended the retreat as an invited speaker,
is pursuing an acting career in New York--against the wishes of her
mother, who worries that her dreams of the stage will lead to nothing
but waiting tables and disappointment. Addressing the group, Perez
said she fell in love with the theater but, to placate her parents,
agreed to complete a second major in communication. "I took my mother's
advice," she said, "thinking it's a fair compromise: one major for
her and one for me." She smiled, almost indulgently, at her younger
self. "Now, I regret any of those moments at BC when I found myself
doing something just to please my parents or my rôsumô."
Professor Stephen Pope, chairman of the Theology Department, delivered
a similar message. "My grandfather figured I had a quick mouth,
so he thought I should be a lawyer. But I loved ideas and students,"
he said. The students in the audience nodded with recognition as
Pope outlined his parents' bargain: If he went to law school, they
would pay the full tuition, but if he went to graduate school, he
was on his own. "I remember going through a car wash with my grandfather--the
memory is so vivid--and listening to him tick off 15 reasons to go
to law school," he said. "But I knew that I had to give grad school
a try, or I would compromise a part of myself."
Hearing from graduates like Perez, and talking with faculty and
staff, gave sophomores a chance to interact with adults whom they
may otherwise perceive as unapproachable. Mike Sacco, who works
in the Office of Resi-dential Life, noticed that the sophomores
in his group "didn't seem to have a lot of older people on campus
to confide in, and were thirsty for this type of personal interaction."
One sophomore said she was touched by the fact that the faculty
member in her group was also searching for his next step. "He's
getting near retirement," she said, "and it occurred to me that
the process he's going through is just as scary as my thoughts about
According to Dean Sherwood, a program like Halftime allows Boston
College to go "full circle, back to a time when faculty educated
the whole student and wore many hats." Plans are already under way
for next year's Halftime program, which will include three summer
retreats and accommodate a total of 200 students. Ultimately, the
goal is for half of each sophomore class, or 800 to 1,000 students,
to attend a Halftime retreat.
Meanwhile, for students who took part in last summer's retreat--and
indeed for any member of the class of 2003--there is Halftime's next
stage, the program dubbed Third Quarter. Newly inaugurated, Third
Quarter offers an overnight retreat on Cape Cod in November, meetings
with alumni, and opportunities for group discussions on topics such
as study abroad, internships, issues with parents, and Ignatian
spirituality, throughout the academic year.
With or without a retreat like Halftime and the events of Third
Quarter, sophomores will eventually pick a major and start a career.
Administrators and faculty are hoping that the weekend will turn
the often lonely and sometimes narrow procedure of choosing a job
into the real work of finding a personal vocation. In the end, says
Fr. Appleyard, the value of Half-time "does not stand or fall on
the decisions that students make about careers. There will be participants
who are still going to graduate with an unfilled idea about what
they are going to do." But, he says, "they will have a clearer idea
about who they are and who they are going to be."
Leah Platt is a writing fellow at the American Prospect magazine