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opinion

Colleges and universities must build on first-year programs to help sophomore students define the questions that will guide their academic journeyswrite Sarah Barber and Robert Thacker

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September 29, 2017
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Everyone in higher education has heard of the sophomore slump. At most colleges and universities, first-year students are welcomed, encouraged and provided programs and services designed to help them navigate new academic expectations and build social networks. But they often come back the following fall with an unavoidable question: “So what do I do now?”

No longer new yet usually without a major (at least at liberal arts colleges) and still seeking a firm social place in the community, many sophomores lack focus and drift. They get into trouble, drop out, get sent home, transfer.

Higher education can no longer ignore the sophomore slump. The sophomore year is the toughest year in college -- it is where retention lives. We have to build on first-year programs to empower sophomore students to define the questions that will guide their academic journeys, to identify the opportunities and activities that will lead to their desired postcollegiate careers, and to develop relationships with faculty members, staff members and peers who will mentor them along the way. Individual institutions will have to determine their own approaches, remaining true to their mission and values. But retaining sophomores should be the overriding goal.

“Sophomore” derives from the Greek meaning “wise,” and meaning “fool.” Keeping that notion in mind as we envision and design programs for sophomores is probably a good start. Scholars who have focused on the sophomore year, such as Molly Schaller of St.Louis University and Julie Tetley at the U.S. Air Force Academy, have also advocated for a combination of academic and social programs directed solely toward sophomores. Those programs include dedicated housing, enhanced live-in academic advising, career and major-discovery programs, programs that single sophomores out and acknowledge their presence, and courses specifically designed to help second-year students answer vexing questions about their place and purpose on the campus and beyond.

At St.Lawrence University, we have been working on those questions for about a decade. While we have a longstanding and robust yearlong program for first-year students, like most institutions, we have long known about and acknowledged some of the usual slippage during the sophomore year -- especially between the spring of the first year and the declaration of a major during the spring of the second year. During that time, students, especially young men, often avoid advisers, struggle with time management and overembrace new freedoms from parental and academic structures -- all of which results in them neglecting their academic work.

We have, however, taken steps of the sort suggested by Schaller and Tetley. Under the aegis of a 2007 grant from the Zales Monogram Pendant in 10K Gold 3 Initials yNrAYi
, we worked with colleagues at Colorado, Connecticut and Skidmore Colleges to learn about the academic and social circumstances of sophomores at liberal arts colleges, and we then produced a Zales Heart Outline Split Shank Ring in 14K Gold P2ogUJYB
. Based on both quantitative and qualitative data gathered at each college, this paper recommended a variety of initiatives, still quite pertinent, that encourage sophomores to define and explore the goals that animate them within the liberal arts. We began by surveying our students about their interactions with their academic advisers, the challenges they felt, their campus involvements and their overall satisfaction. Those results led each college to initiate high-impact programs focused on sophomores.

While those program offerings varied at each institution, we all reconsidered our advising structures and set about designing complementary initiatives. At St.Lawrence, we created a menu of sophomore seminars and held discussion dinners. The seminars were shorter than usual courses, designed to feel different and focused on questions of personal values. (Two sample titles: “The Meaning of Life” and “What’s Important to Me?”) These seminars have continued and, through a 2016 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation , we are in the process of expanding them as a central element in a program we have called Sophomore Journeys.

Some of our new Sophomore Journeys seminars feature the same type of practical, hands-on, experiential learning that students so often praise in our successful first-year program. Students learn how to create podcasts and documentary videos or explore techniques for designing and assembling books. Other seminars have community-based learning components, like a book group with community members or a semester-long project with a partner social services organization. Still others will address pressing contemporary issues like the diversity of ways to practice Islam; the impact of the sport on national discussions of race, identity and policy; or how to evaluate the influence of Twitter on a presidency.

Every Sophomore Journeys seminar in our rotating menu of courses offers sophomores significant mentoring from faculty members outside the normal structure of office hours through teas and coffees, shared meals, and field trips. And every faculty member who teaches a sophomore seminar receives extra training on how to integrate into classroom discussions advice about selecting a major, obtaining internships and pursuing research opportunities, as well as how to talk more comfortably with students about their extracurricular activities and residential and social environments.

Many institutions, not just liberal arts colleges, can adapt these strategies. Where targeted classes for sophomores may not be possible, departments and programs can reshape their foundational courses and expand elective offerings with an appeal to sophomores in mind. Where overtaxed advisers must restrict their focus for efficiency’s sake to course selection or graduation requirements, colleges and universities can build peer-to-peer mentoring networks.

Attention to the sophomore year works: during the decade ending in 2016, St.Lawrence’s first-year-to-sophomore-year retention has held steady at about 90percent. But more than numbers, important as they are, colleges and universities have an implicit pedagogical and moral imperative as teachers of undergraduates. The cost of ignoring the sophomore slump is not just lost tuition dollars when we fail to retain our sophomores. It is less engaged, less motivated juniors; it is seniors uncertain about their futures after graduation. Institutional culture and reputation depend on how we help sophomores shape their own best answers to the question “So what do I do now?”

Enticing high school graduates to our institutions implies the responsibility of providing direction and support throughout each of a student’s years on campus. On students’ arrival and first adjustment, and during the years focused on the major, we all know well how to proceed. But now, and most especially, we need to keep focusing on the sophomore year as our “wise fools” seek to find their way -- helping them in discovering passions and direction, finding the modes that work, and leading them where they want to go. That’s just what they should do now.

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It is often news media that plays the strongest selective agent. After the Cosco Busan spill, images of hundreds of frustrated San Francisco volunteers waiting to clean up oiled birds, but held back by Government bureaucrats, were rolled on national media. These kinds of images result in calls to Congress and demands for investigations. By contrast, the Coast Guard’s work on the post-Katrina and Rita oil spills hardly made newsworthy footage relative to images of people stranded on the roofs of their flooded houses. Because so much of the selective force on government agencies, especially when it comes in the form of media attention, focuses on mistakes (cost overruns, terrapin-like foot dragging, and botched responses), adapting based on success is not something that can be instilled from the top down. We cannot (and would not want to) order media outlets to only report good news.

Accordingly, the onus is on operatives at much smaller levels of government – battalion commanders, local police chiefs, and bureau heads – to identify successes, even if they were just one part of an operation that mostly failed, and to reproduce them. Sometimes this will mean promoting the people responsible for the success. Sometimes it will mean allocating more of a budget to activities that demonstrated success. But even where these local agents lack the power or resources to dole out these material rewards, they do have a very powerful and very inexpensive resource at their disposal. They can reproduce successes by teaching others in their field how to adopt their successful activities. This kind of teaching and learning is best facilitated through small informal networks of practitioners. For example, the armed forces have used intranets, such as NCOcorps.net, to give soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan a forum to share information about successful practices as experienced by troops in the field. 48 This peer-to-peer training turns out to be an invaluable resource to new soldiers who come into combat with much less experience, and therefore much less adapted, than the insurgents that they will be fighting. Indeed, this method of replication brings us full circle back to the adaptability of decentralized organizations, as illustrated in the following case study of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The case of IED deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrates several points relevant to natural security. The issue of IED came to most civilian’s attention in a dramatic fashion on December 8, 2004, during a televised visit between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Guard soldiers preparing for deployment in Kuwait. To the cheers of the soldiers assembled, Specialist Thomas Wilson, a thirty-one-year-old Tennessee National Guardsman, pointedly asked the secretary why he and his fellow soldiers were being forced to rummage through garbage dumps to find armor to strap on to their vehicles, which provided inadequate protection in the combat zone. Rumsfeld was initially taken aback, then tartly retorted “you go to war with the Army you have.” 49

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