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Sophomore Summit helps students build connections and explore future plans

The Sophomore Summit brought together 60 second-year students with faculty, staff and alumni to reflect, connect and engage in meaningful discussions about their paths and Emory and beyond.

Emory’s first-ever Sophomore Summit united students from Emory College and Oxford College with alumni, faculty and staff from both campuses for an intensive two-day retreat to reflect, connect and engage in meaningful discussions about their potential majors, values, career interests and co-curricular activities.

For the 60 students who attended the mid-February event, it was a moment to pause from the intensity of campus — and reduce the pressure to have a set game plan for life after college. 

The Summit is the first signature program launched by the new Pathways Center in support of its mission to help Emory students and alumni reach their full potential. The center offers integrated programs in career services, undergraduate research, national scholarships and fellowships, pre-health advising and experiential learning in alignment with the academic liberal arts experience.

The retreat included multiple opportunities for sophomores to evaluate their time at Emory so far and dig into how their experiences, values, skills, interests and priorities could apply to their future aspirations. At the end of the summit, students had time to reflect on what they learned and develop concrete next steps.

Branden Grimmett, vice provost and Emory College associate dean, speaks to students about the Pathways Center.

“During the Sophomore Summit, Emory and Oxford students were able to think broadly about their future — not just after Emory, but while they are still here. Rather than quickly foreclosing on a major, minor or career due to peer or family pressure, the Summit helped students become more comfortable making decisions when they’re ready,” says Branden Grimmett, who leads Pathways as vice provost and Emory College associate dean.

“The career discernment process is not a cerebral one — it requires action,” he notes. “I applaud the action students took in stepping outside their comfort zone to dedicate time to thinking about and planning for their future.”

Throughout the off-campus retreat, alumni speakers provided insight and perspective on their own career paths, including a keynote talk by Andrew Fried 98C, Emmy Award-winning founder and president of Boardwalk Pictures and producer of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” and “Cheer.”

Emmy Award-winning producer and keynote speaker Andrew Fried 98C talked with students about his own “circuitous journey” and career path after leaving Emory.

“I was incredibly honored to be asked to speak at the Sophomore Summit,” says Fried. “I truly feel indebted to Emory for my experience there as a student and the role my time there has played in helping to shape my life and my career.

“I wish I could have known what a long and circuitous journey was ahead of me when I was a sophomore at Emory,” he adds. “There is so much pressure to have everything figured out.  I hope that my talk provided some context into the idea that we never truly figure out our life path until we are looking back upon it. It may be a cliché, but it really is all about the journey. The best thing we can do is be present in it and celebrate where we are, not necessarily where we may be going.”

Gaining new perspectives

The Summit gave Oxford College sophomore Henry Dierkes and other students the fresh perspective that Grimmett and retreat organizers aimed to provide.

Dierkes first thought the Summit would be a good way to meet people beyond his campus 30 miles east of Atlanta. It did, and also gave him a chance to think about something that had been in the back of his mind: what life would be like after graduation.

“One of the speakers said something that really stuck with me: Don’t think about where you will end up, think about your next steps,” says Dierkes, a Peachtree City, Georgia, native who has lived in Bolivia and Peru.

Dierkes’ next step is talking with faculty advisers about ways he can use his skills — including working as a computer science tutor at the Oxford Math Center — in an internship. He’s using the booklet students used for notes and activities as a reference guide as he works to get a better idea of exactly what kind of work best fits.

Emory College student Ali Hirsch, who arrived at Emory last year from Whitefish, Montana, ready to explore science and ways to study abroad, wasn’t sure what to do with her newfound interest in the humanities. She declared a double major in sociology and English this year, then signed up for the Sophomore Summit.

“I feel like I’ve been through the wringer lately, trying to figure out what it is I really want to do,” Hirsch says. “I just thought maybe I would learn about opportunities that I wasn’t aware of or that I could gain some perspective on what is out there if you’re not thinking pre-professional.”

Meeting a wide range of fellow sophomores — including her first in-person connections with Oxford students — renewed her sense of belonging at Emory. The alumni experiences inspired her even more. 

Hirsch found herself interested in careers like that of Wei Wei Chen 18C in film studies and now a writer/producer for CNN Creative Marketing, and Hayat Geresu 20C in sociology and biology, now in Emory’s masters of public health program.

Those feelings came together when Jordan Stein, a 2012 political science and sociology graduate who worked for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg before moving into the tech industry, spoke.

“He had such a great take on enjoying your education by taking comfort in the unknown,” Hirsch says. “It was really nice to hear it’s OK not to know where your life might take you.”

Hirsch already has become more active in what she wants to explore. She recently joined the Emory Wheel to get a hands-on look at journalism and an opportunity to learn about digital tools. She will travel to New York later this semester as part of the Pathways Career Trek, in hopes of seeing journalists’ work environments and also what law school might entail.

“I think part of the disconnect for me as an Emory student is feeling isolated and uncertain when everyone else seems to be sure of themselves,” Hirsch says. “Taking the weekend to see other people navigating those same feelings really helped.”

Pearl Dowe, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science at African American Studies at Emory College and Oxford, engages students during a faculty panel.

Those feelings were echoed by Mere Hunter, who transferred to Emory College last fall and was worried he was behind his peers. Still, when he signed up for the summit, he expected a team-building retreat more than anything else.

The first inkling of how helpful the weekend would be in easing his academic anxiety came in his first breakout session, led by the pre-health advising team. It was the first time Hunter, who had declared his biology major the week before, learned about ways a gap year could help with medical school. It was also the first time he discovered how joint programs, from an MD/MBA to an MD/PhD, play into career options and interests.

“I learned so much about the different avenues I can take as someone in STEM,” Hunter says. “The summit helped me realize there are tons of ways to connect with people who can get me into the research I am most interested in.”

For Hunter, that means exploring a nutrition minor that could help him support future patients as an eventual colorectal surgeon. He has researched lab opportunities and plans to “properly introduce” himself with his major adviser this semester, to discuss his options.

“Every sophomore I know is stressed about the same things I’m stressed about,” he says. “I think every sophomore should have to attend the summit, because it honestly helped me take a breath and realize I’m where I need to be and what the steps are to get to where I want to go.”

Kaleb Branch listens during one of the Sophomore Summit presentations.

The Pathways Center staff will offer the Sophomore Summit annually to give as many students as possible that same opportunity for connection and reflection, Grimmett says. Juniors and seniors can also participate as Summit leaders.

“The sophomore year can be a challenging one, not just at Emory, but at any university,” Grimmett says. “The Pathways Center is committed to helping second-year students understand that their anxieties about the future are not unique to them — many of their classmates are feeling the same things. Students came away from the summit with a renewed sense of belonging at Emory, but more importantly, a reinvestment in themselves.”

All photos by Moses Sparks.

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