The Colgate Scene
May 2006

Coming of age
Colgate turns sophomore "slump" into a galaxy for exploration

Raj Bellani, dean of the sophomore-year experience, finishes up a discussion with Jennifer Dorland '08 in his office. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Bellani and Kim Taylor-Goodsill, coordinator of democracy-building initiatives [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

February, 40 sophomores participated in a speed dating event -- inspired in part by a scene in the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Pop culture aside, the communication and intimacy skills developed in courting and dating can be applied to a healthy personal and professional life, according to psychology professor Caroline Keating. Moving from potential date to potential date, participants sat across from each other for two minutes at a time, and had to describe themselves, ask questions of their counterparts, and work through those uncomfortable moments that can come with a first encounter.

Sophomore-year experience programs at Colgate run the gamut from time management workshops and career exploration sessions to book discussions and dinners with professors -- all meant to support students in building important skills at a key developmental stage in their college careers. [Photo by Aubrey Graham '06]

Taking it all in
Dahlia Rizk '08 is living the sophomore-year experience via Democracy Dinners, a Spring Break NGO trip, and the Ashoka Foundation, and she says it is changing her life.
A transformation
Although the sophomore year of Todd Mulligan '06 was a pivotal time, his personal growth wasn't the direct result of the sophomore-year experience program. Or was it?
Finding a clear path
When Erin Hanna '06 was a sophomore, she thought she was headed for a career in clinical psychology. Luckily, she had the encouragement and the resources to explore her options early.
Democracy on display: alternative spring break
The recent alternative spring break trip visiting non-governmental organizations and foundations in Washington, D.C., brought to life many of the concepts that are integral to Colgate's sophomore-year experience.
Conventional wisdom holds that a college student's sophomore year is the "lost" year, but at Colgate, thanks to a strategic program called the sophomore-year experience, the second year on campus is when students like Dahlia Rizk '08, Erin Hannah '06, and Todd Mulligan '06 begin to find themselves. But make no mistake: the program, now in its third year, is about much more than helping students choose their majors or decide on possible careers. It is designed to help young people see themselves as active participants in the campus community, and to engage them as citizens of the world -- hence the program's theme, "The Arts of Democracy."

The program is part of Colgate's residential education initiative, the goal of which is to see each room, each floor, and each hall become a vibrant living and learning community, with students determining their own lively programming, mentoring opportunities, and engagement with faculty.

College administrators across the country are clamoring to learn about Colgate's successful sophomore program, and to replicate it on their campuses. A $161,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation has provided seed money for Colgate to refine the program and to codify its best practices. As part of the grant, a dozen or so scholars in the field of sophomore development -- practitioners and theoreticians -- will gather at Colgate next month to talk about the needs of sophomore students and the responsibility colleges have to address them. The grant also funded alternative spring breaks in 2005 and 2006 exploring non-governmental and nonprofit organizations.

At Colgate, the sophomores' gregarious Pied Piper is Dean Raj Bellani. He loves to gather a crowd and knows most sophomores not only by name but by screen name. "I like to hold court with students -- on the chapel steps, in the dining hall, in a residence hall, or in a chat room," he said with unapologetic pride unusual in a Colgate administrator. "They multiply, and I like that. They call me `The Raj' -- never Dean Bellani."

Bellani came to Colgate in 2001 as associate director of campus life. Since fall 2002, he has led the small team that crafted and refined the university's programs for sophomores. Meanwhile, he has become so intrigued with the challenge of engaging 700 diverse individuals in what he believes is their most important college year, that he is studying it as part of his EdD work at the University of Pennsylvania. Presently, there is a dearth of literature on the subject of the second-year student's development, and Bellani is determined to change that.

"I am a pioneer, an astronaut if you will," he said. "The sophomore-year horizon has not yet been tapped." In March, he shared his experiences in a National Resource Center teleconference titled "The Forgotten Student: Understanding and Supporting Sophomores."

If Bellani is an astronaut, then Molly Schaller, coordinator of the college student personnel program and assistant professor at the University of Dayton, is one of the first astronomers to map the galaxy. Since 1996, she has researched sophomore students, and her 2005 article, "Wandering and Wondering: Traversing the Uneven Terrain of the Second College Year" [About Campus, Vol 10; No. 3], based on her doctoral thesis, is a seminal work.

Schaller described sophomore students as "at an important developmental point." Of four stages -- "random exploration, focused exploration, tentative choices, and commitment" -- she found that "the students who took on focused exploration more fully seemed to look at their lives more thoroughly." Many student life professionals now agree.

"This is the dilemma of the sophomore year," Schaller wrote. "If students don't stay in this stage for long enough or in deep ways, then they may resort to allowing powerful external sources such as parents, peers, faculty, society at large, or old notions of themselves to make decisions for them."

Bellani explains it this way: "I call the sophomore year the puberty year -- the coming of age for college students. The challenge is to get them comfortable with the maturation process -- emotionally and physically -- so they won't rush through it."

Freedom to choose
Attracting the interest of busy college sophomores takes many perspectives. Bellani's team includes Kim Taylor-Goodsill, coordinator of democracy-building initiatives, and Aichida Ul-Aflaha '04, residential education coordinator. An elected sophomore council represents the interests of the class and fosters unity through council-sponsored study breaks.

"Peer-to-peer networking is the key," said Bellani. "The Millennial generation is keenly receptive to structure, so you create the four corners -- the landmarks -- and let them run the path. We offer options, variety, and depth, while giving them a lot of freedom."

"I am a pioneer, an astronaut if you will. The sophomore-year horizon has not yet been tapped."
— Dean Raj Bellani
Each year, Bellani's team hosts more than 75 events, each with a meaning and a purpose. For example, a speed dating event at the Colgate Inn was inspired in part by Professor Caroline Keating's argument presented in Introductory Psychology 150: courting and dating foster important communication and intimacy skills that also serve as fuel for a healthy personal and professional life. So students weren't simply looking for love; they were learning to present their best qualities under pressure, as they might in a job interview or important social exchange.

Democracy Dinners at Merrill House offer groups of 10 to 12 students a chance to engage with a faculty member or guest speaker they might not know, on an issue they might not have considered. In February, Allan Maca, assistant professor of anthropology, surprised the 10 females and one male student at the table by asking them to confront whether (or why) the intensity and engagement of the female students at Colgate exceeds that of the males. The women did most of the talking, comparing and contrasting their leadership and communication styles to those of men.

David Hussey '08, who carried the flag for his gender, said the dinner changed his outlook. "It's not a given Hussey, who recently declared anthropology as his major, attended the dinner because he "knew it would be thought-provoking and well planned." However, Hussey is one of those hard-to-engage sophomores who attends only those events that most interest him: a brown bag lunch on race and biology, and another small gathering on science and journalism. "It's not a guy thing," he said. "It's my personality. I like to do a lot of things on my own."

Bellani accepts Hussey and students like him as a challenge. "Success for us means that people are taking advantage of the opportunities we present. Intimacy is what they want. `Reflection' and `engagement' are the big buzz words in student affairs circles. But we don't make it heavy. Will students say they had reflection? No. Hopefully they will say they had a good conversation that made them think about something outside of themselves."

That, according to Schaller, is why Colgate's sophomore-year experience is "so far ahead" of everybody else's. "We're in the beginning stages of a movement," she said. "There's a listserv, and people are talking to each other, but many institutions are merely supporting sophomores with retreats through their ministries or career development. Colgate had the vision to tie democracy and education to the sophomore year."

Kim Taylor-Goodsill articulates that ambitious difference: "We hope that by the end of the sophomore year, our students will have learned the skills they need so they are informed and capable of becoming leaders of a democratic society." Those skills include public speaking, active listening, problem solving, teamwork, data-informed decision making, and an understanding of and appreciation for diversity.

The academic link
As the program heads into its fourth year, it continues to evolve. According to Keating, who was appointed faculty liaison last fall, the push is on to link academics to what she calls "the college side," and further, to introduce educational programs that connect to the everyday experiences and personal goals of students.

Why focus on the sophomore year? "With distribution, CORE and language requirements, and the pressure to pick a major, the sophomore year can seem a lot like a forced march," Keating said. "Students sometimes lose the fire they had for academics as first-years." That's all the more reason they need to be engaged in the focused reflection that Schaller and other experts advocate.

So Keating and the rest of her committee -- which includes fellow faculty members Tim Byrnes and Frank Frey, plus Lynn Waldman, director of academic program and disability services, Taylor-Goodsill, and Bellani -- have met several times to "hatch ideas that will help sophomores connect the dots; that is, to appreciate how skill sets learned in class might propel them into a meaningful life and career," Keating said. "We dreamt up exciting new experiences that we can link to courses. We also looked for ways we could link the many strong programs that we already have, such as the Upstate Institute, the COVE, and Beyond Colgate, which presently funds travel, speakers, and other enhancements for student learning."

In Leadership Options for Tomorrow (LOFT) II, a pilot program planned for fall 2006, a group of 25 students with an interest in leadership, many of whom lived together as first-years in LOFT I, will live together at 94 Broad Street. Under Keating's tutelage they will learn inside and out of the classroom. "Their education will be very personalized," said Keating. "They'll incubate leadership ideas working in small groups, they'll explore the feasibility of their ideas and get skill-based instruction, and they'll read the primary literature in psychology and think about theories in leadership. We will coalesce all of these wonderful enrichment possibilities and focus them like a laser on these sophomores, as our test case."

Keating also is planning a speaker series featuring "ordinary people who have changed the world." As she said: "True leadership is about changing the world. If you can't think about that when you're a sophomore in college, when can you?"

Brooks is director of media relations at Colgate.
Top of page
Table of contents
  Next: Taking it all in >>