As part of Bear Beginnings, the Class of 2025 gathered at Francis Olympic Field to watch the men’s soccer team. Hover over the image to learn more about WashU’s newest students. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)
Since arriving on campus, the 1,994 members of the Class of 2025 have joined clubs, studied for midterms and established deeply held beliefs about the best dishes at the Bear’s Den. But on this night back in August, WashU was still new to them. And they were new to WashU.
To learn more about the Class of 2025, The Record recently reached out to five students randomly captured in this August photo at Francis Olympic Field, where first-year students gathered for a Bear Beginnings tailgate party and men’s soccer game. They possess different interests (mock trial, badminton); enjoy different subjects (Plato, women’s studies); and hold different aspirations (to learn a new language, to create new imaging technology). And yet, they all chose Washington University for the same reason: the people.
“What drew me was the type of people who go here,” said Jenna Nguyen, who is studying biomedical engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering. “I was looking for a collaborative community that I could really grow with.”
“When I visited, I was first struck by how beautiful this place is. But I also felt all of the positive energy. You could just go up to a random student and ask a question and they were so nice and helpful,” added Will Smith, also a biomedical engineering student.
Here, Jenna Nguyen, Trey Sharp, Kate Sifferlen, Will Smith and Johnny Yeldham share more about themselves and their transition to campus life. The Record will check back in with the students at the start of the spring semester and, again, as they wrap up their first year of college.
Studying: Biomedical engineering, McKelvey School of Engineering
On playing club badminton at WashU: “Where I’m from, it’s hard to put together a badminton team, but then you come here and everyone is really good, with the correct shoes and they own their own racquets.”
On the South 40: “I was just texting Johnny, ‘Are you on your way home?’ That’s what I call the South 40. Home is wherever you feel comfortable, wherever you can be yourself.”
Nguyen planned to wait until she received responses from each of the 33 colleges and universities she applied to before opening the letters filling her inbox.
“I thought it would be fun to make one of those videos where I open all of the responses at once,” Nguyen said. “But then I started getting follow-up letters from some of the schools that accepted me. That’s how I found out I got into WashU. I was like, ‘Ooh. That’s a good one. Now I’m really excited.’”
Nguyen did not research every school she applied to, but WashU intrigued her from the start. She had heard about the school’s great engineering program and generous financial aid packages. Still, she wondered if WashU would welcome a first-generation, low-income student like her.
“That’s the question I asked every alum and current student I could, and they put my mind at ease,” Nguyen said. “Right away, I felt very comfortable with students I met through Deneb STARs (the cohort program for first-generation, low-income students). And really, everyone here has been so cool. The people here have cool stories. They have cool backgrounds. They have cool dreams.”
Studying: Political science and philosophy, Arts & Sciences
Hometown: Kansas City, Mo.
Favorite class: “I’m taking ‘Early Political Thought’ and right now we’re reading Plato’s ‘Republic.’ It is so interesting because you can totally see how they apply today.”
Are you homesick?: “Not really, but I do miss the comforts of being in your own home. At home, I can cook a meal and take a long shower. And I don’t have to wear shower shoes.”
Sharp is surprised by how surprised he is. Sure, he knew WashU drew students from all over the globe. Still, he has learned so much from so many in such a short time.
“One of my suitemates is from China, another roommate is from Berkeley and the girl across the hall worked at a goat farm,” said Sharp, who attended the game with two other suitemates. “Being from Missouri, the coolest part about college so far is hearing about people’s homes and perspectives that are so different from mine. I feel like every conversation has taught me something new.”
Still, Sharp knows not every conversation will be easy, such as the debates that occurred after a student removed American flags planted in honor of the victims of 9/11. Some observers called the actions a valid protest against Islamophopia and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others said the student violated the free speech of the College Republicans, who organized the annual tribute. The incident drew media attention from across the globe.
“It has been an interesting time,” Sharp said. “I think there are real criticisms to be made about 9/11 memorials that don’t address the consequences of what came after. But you can’t ignore the disrespect that was done to the memorial. It’s complicated, and people are still upset on both sides. But I also think it’s good to have these conversations and to actually listen to one another. That’s what college is for.”
Studying: Strategic management, Olin Business School
Favorite class: I’m taking “Intro to Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies” with Professor (Rebecca) Wanzo and it’s great. I like that it’s less of a lecture and more of a discussion. I’m definitely thinking about it as a minor now.”
Go-to meal: Sushi from Paws & Go
Sifferlen knew she wanted to study business after she helped her friend successfully operate a nonprofit that taught children with autism how to swim. But where was a bigger question. Would she join her friends at nearby Indiana University, home to the acclaimed Kelley School of Business? Or would she opt for Olin Business School, where she would know no one?
“I picked WashU because I wanted the smaller community. And so far, it feels like the right decision,” said Sifferlen, who attended the game with a roommate. “I’ve found some friends that I really like. And people here are so nice. They’ll just start conversations with you. At some big state schools, people stay in their high school friend groups, but here a lot of people don’t know anyone. We’re all in this together.”
Sifferlen is mastering new life skills — keeping her room neat, remembering to grab the laundry before someone dumps it out of the dryer, going to bed at a reasonable hour so her desk lamp doesn’t keep her roommate awake.
And then there are the academic challenges. Homework came on hard and fast, and Siffelen felt she wasn’t as prepared as some peers. She admits she feels weird asking questions during a big lecture, but has started to use office hours and ask more questions during discussion sections.
“College is a lot, but I’m figuring it out,” Sifferlen said.
Studying: Biomedical engineering, McKelvey School of Engineering
Hometown: Memphis, Tenn.
On St. Louis: “I’ve used my Metro pass to explore St. Louis and went to Forest Park for the balloon race. I’ve never seen a hot air balloon that close before. It was awesome.”
Hardest part of college: “Coming off a year of Zoom classes, it has been hard to adjust to the workload. You didn’t really need to push yourself. That’s definitely not the case anymore.”
Let’s be honest. Most first-year students have not been back to Francis Olympic Field since the August soccer match. Such is life at a Division III university, even one with top-ranked teams like Washington University. But Will Smith has continued to root for the Bears, attending soccer and volleyball games.
“It’s hard to get us nerds to come out. We’d rather be doing homework all day,” Smith joked. “I think it’s really fun cheering for the teams. It’s not because I’m really into sports. I just have a lot of school spirit. My goal is to get more people to come out with me.”
Smith’s favorite class is “Introduction for Biomedical Engineering,” where he has learned to use computer-aided design software and heard from experts like Daniel Moran, professor of biomedical engineering, who explained how he uses neuroprosthetics to help paralyzed individuals. One day, Smith hopes to conduct his own research on medical technologies and imaging.
“In Memphis, a lot of people don’t have access to the medical technology they need to survive,” Smith said. “I’m not sure of my exact path, but I want to learn all I can so that I can help the people in my community.”
Smith also has engaged in campus clubs, joining the National Society of Black Engineers, WashU Running Club and the Association of Black Students.
“I feel like I’ve really connected to the clubs I’ve joined and the friends I’ve made,” Smith said. “I was afraid I would be homesick and I really haven’t been. We’ll see what happens in the future, but the transition has been surprisingly good.”
Studying: Global studies, Arts & Sciences
Hometown: St. Louis
Top academic goal: To learn another language. Yeldham already is proficient in Spanish, having won the Global Seal of Biliteracy
Favorite place to study: The courtyard in Simon Hall
Yeldham remembers moving into his suite like it was yesterday. And yet, it feels like a lifetime has passed.
“Even yesterday feels like a long time ago, and I’m still trying to figure out why exactly,” said Yeldham, who attended the game with friends he met last winter in an early-decision group chat. “I think it’s because there is so much going on — classes, homework, seeing friends, meeting people at Bear’s Den.”
Yeldham is a fourth-generation Washington University student. His brother, Charlie, is a WashU junior and his mother, grandparents and great-grandparents are alumni. Still, Yeldham researched a number of schools before deciding to apply.
“The more I learned about colleges, the more I realized that WashU checked all of the boxes — strong political science and international affairs programs, a more urban setting, nice people,” Yeldham said. “And then there are extra things like the dorms and food, which are both really good.”
Yeldham is off to a good start. He really likes his suitemates and was among the 12 first-year students selected for the university’s mock trial team. Yeldham almost didn’t try out even though he was captain of his high school team and a state finalist.
“I was intimidated,” Yeldham said. “They indicated they were not going to take a lot of applicants and 70 people registered. But I got a burst of motivation and decided to do my best, and if I didn’t get it, I would try something else.”
Yeldham felt good coming out of his audition and that night, his new teammates surprised him with the good news.
“They came to my dorm room and congratulated me and welcomed me to the team,” said Yeldham, who is now practicing six hours a week with the team. “It was an amazing feeling.”