I got off the phone this morning with my oldest. We often chat on her drive to the hospital where she is a chief pediatric resident, and something she said about bad years turning out to be good years made me think back to her college years. “These are the best four years of your life”-that’s the continual refrain college students hear.
We hoped that would be true when we took her to Notre Dame. Freshman year, she handled the academics, navigated the campus social scene, and survived a roommate who brought two truckloads of belongings filling their room before MK arrived. The summer after her freshman year our family moved to Belgium. It wasn’t long after I went back to campus with her in August, that I knew something was amiss. There was malaise and irritability in her voice when she called; I even read it in the texts she sent. Her grades dipped. Her motivation waned.
I wondered whether she was in a sophomore slump. The newness of college was gone, her coursework sophomore year intensified, and she began to doubt her pre-professional liberal arts major. She and her buddies referred to the building that they took their exams in as “where med school dreams go to die”. Sophomore year courses cull the herd. This frightening and very real effect made her question whether she had the grades or the desire to continue onto to the next level. She feared her career path was askew. And her worries were compounded by the sadness that she wasn’t living our family’s new life in Europe and her high school hometown life was gone. My initial reaction wasn’t very empathic. She was at Notre Dame and these were the best years of her life, right? I expected her to buck up, toughen up, and grow up. A tall order for a nineteen-year-old kid whose family was a six-hour time difference, 4000+ miles, and an ocean away.
After a few weeks, I realized she was not snapping out it. I woke up to the dual difficulties of her academic struggles and homesickness. It was hard to see her hurting. I tried to react without over-reacting. She came home three times that year, but in hindsight we should have gone to campus during football season, that was a period she felt especially left behind.
We urged her to make it a year for self-examination, calculated action, and dig into her studies. That added pressure to a tense time, but she determined what classes held her interest, gave her enjoyment, and where she excelled. By the end of October break, she determined that she wanted to study French again and go abroad to France during her junior year. With help from old friends she made the decision on her dual major. MK had gone home with their daughter for Thanksgiving break and when discussing options of liberal arts majors to pair with pre-med, my old friend who had known MK and her love of books since she was three, simply wondered aloud why English wouldn’t be her first choice. The fog cleared, the path was opened, and MK was an English pre-professional studies major.
Her sophomore slump was endured more than conquered. She squandered time but didn’t lose her footing with too much aimlessness or drinking excessively. But like the many who experience malaise, there was a fair share of isolation and lethargy. Few students on campus talked about sophomore slump. Maybe they feared it was contagious. MK was disappointed that we had moved to Europe after and not during her high school years. She didn’t want to leave ND, but she didn’t feel that she was part of this family adventure. We went on outings and trips during her breaks and her siblings made it clear that they preferred when we were all together, but it was tough being a continent away.
Back on campus, with some encouragement she evaluated whether her social undertakings were in her best interest and dumped activities that were a burden or waste of time. We advised her to utilize campus resources, talk to her academic advisor and professors. Ask for help and accept it. She took some advice, but it was the combination of looking forward to a summer internship and getting accepted for studying abroad second semester junior year that pushed her out of her sophomore slump. She went back to campus junior year refreshed and focused. She thrived and strived through that year and the following one, finishing strong.
In the end, that year was much like the bear hunt ditty we sang when she was little, “you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you’ve got to go through it”. And thank goodness, she didn’t have to do it alone. MK learned to make career-impacting decisions and navigate times of angst. And I learned that listening and compassionate parenting never ends.