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Time out:  A program at college midpoint helps students consider what's gone wrong and what's gonee right
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Photograph of BC students signing up for BC's Time out program


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 yours."

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 graduation."

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 in Boston.


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