Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies
Attending to the Sophomore Experience at Belmont University
Belmont University, like many other colleges and universities, has a robust first-year orientation program and course sequence to help students adjust to college-level work and life on campus. Fewer institutions have programs that specifically address the needs of sophomore students, but faculty and staff at Belmont are finding that this is a crucial time for their students. Sophomores no longer benefit from the hands-on programming targeted at first-year students, but they aren't deeply involved in their academic major yet, either. "It's that time when students ask questions about 'why am here? Am I here for the right reasons, am I in the right academic major?'" says David Sneed, director of the Sophomore Experience at Belmont.
In an effort to address this "sophomore slump," Belmont has established the GPS Program: Growth and Purpose for Students, which is primarily directed at students in their second, third, and fourth semesters. Now in its second year, the program is based in a new Sophomore Transitions Center/GPS office, which offers coaching sessions for students questioning their educational choices and also coordinates academic, residence life, and career services initiatives.
"The word we use for this is discernment," says Jimmy Davis, associate provost for academic affairs. "Students do some careful thinking about their own abilities, interests, and desires and look specifically at the world around them and say, 'what place should I have in the world?' When you're a sophomore, you can't answer that question forever and all time any more than when you were a freshmen in high school, or when you're thirty—it's an ongoing part of life, consistently asking yourself who am I and what's my place in the world? But it's more intense during the sophomore year than at other times, and so we're hoping to provide them some guidance and assistance as they go through that discernment process."
Coaching through Crises
The sophomore slump first came up as an issue at Belmont during the planning process for the university's current quality enhancement plan (QEP). All faculty and staff members contributed ideas for potential frameworks for the QEP. Among those that stood out was a plan to systematically address the sophomore experience. Annette Sisson, the professor of English who first suggested this focus, says the issue was raised by her students, who told her that "the sophomore year was a desert. They were still in the bubble their first year, when we did all those fabulous programs. But then when they began to doubt their major or didn't have one, or friendships were changing—everything changed around them and they felt like they were the only one in crisis."
Several other QEP proposals were considered, but ultimately the sophomore experience was chosen for implementation—both for its feasibility and for the ease with which it could accommodate elements from other proposals. The QEP provided funding for the new Sophomore Transitions Center, which is staffed by Sneed and two part-time "coaches."
"It's not academic advising, and not counseling, but helping the students find their own way," Sneed says. "We ask them questions, we hold them accountable for the decisions they make and the processes they want to go through. We try to say 'have you thought about this? Would you like to explore this way?'"
Most coaching sessions fall into one of two types, Sneed says. Many students come in questioning whether they are in the right major or minor. Coaches listen to their concerns and often take the students through inventories such as the StrengthsFinder test or other assessments. "We try to listen what that student's passions are," Sneed says. "Our president talks to students about finding their passions and the world's needs—the intersection where those two come together is where we want our students to be. Our goal is to try to help students identify their passions and the world's needs, and if we can find an academic major that relates to that."
"The other model, he says, "is to help a student who comes in and is certain of where he or she is going but wants to take advantage of our resources now to position him or herself more readily for the world beyond Belmont. So we'll help them developed focused action plan, considering all the opportunities Belmont offers, includingstudy abroad, internships, and special programs." Often coaches are best able to help students by alerting them to opportunities at the university or greater Nashville, such as civic engagement opportunities, career services, academic advising, or campus ministries.
In addition to establishing the Sophomore Transitions Center, the QEP also provided for changes in the curriculum and residence life. The curricular changes built on the revisions made to the university's general education program in 2003, says Davis. "We'd revised our general education and made it vertical—it's not something our students can 'get out of the way' in the first two years. It has courses designed as second, third, and fourth semester courses, some other specific things in our junior level courses and senior capstone." Despite this change to a vertical model, however, students were often left to choose their sophomore courses with very little guidance. "We had a coherent program for students as they entered Belmont and in their first semester, and in the junior year we have some courses with particular emphases that are appropriate. But those second, third, and fourth semester courses were just 'whatever you decide to take' –it wasn't intentional. Those sophomore courses lacked a focus, and our students felt it."
One new change has come with a required speech course. Speech was already required for all students before reaching the sixty credit hours, but the content of the course has been adjusted for all sections. Now, "instead of completing four speeches on a standard boilerplate we have students do a personal survey from their Focus assessment and other inventories they do," Sisson says, "and their first speech, rather than being personal in a nebulous way, focuses on taking these surveys and how they see this relating to their plans or making them rethink what they are doing."
Modifying an existing course was easier than trying to staff new courses, but getting all speech faculty on board wasn't easy at the beginning, Sisson says, especially with so many new sections being added in recent years. "We've grown so fast and we have many adjuncts involved—you need to be involved in the culture for it to work really well. We do have workshops and meetings and that helps everyone, but sometimes an adjunct is brought in at the last minute."
The other piece of curricular change involves sophomore learning communities. Paired classes are scheduled back to back as often as possible, allowing instructors to potentially coteach both classes. At least one project in the learning community counts for both classes, "which helps them see this as an expansive experience," Sisson says. "And they get to see faculty on the same page—we model good things with faculty collaboration." The QEP also provides funding for experiential learning outside of the class in the learning communities.
The Office of Residence Life has also instituted new program that they hope will address some elements of the sophomore slump. Providing housing geared toward sophomores is particularly difficult because they are Belmont's largest on-campus population, says Anthony Donovan, director of residence life—sophomores are required to live on campus, with some exceptions. Still, the university set aside Kennedy Hall, with a capacity of two hundred residents, as a sophomore-designated space. Kennedy Hall residents were given increased self-governance through their community council, which is made up of elected hall residents. "Frequently their community council was the primary person or group putting on programming," Donovan says, including a sophomore service project with Habitat for Humanity. "It probably didn't come about quite the way we wanted to, but there were certainly attempts to give them some control over our policies. We were trying to make our experience for sophomores be a little more distinct, instead of replicating what we do in the freshmen halls."
There also have been successes with residence programming focused on discernment issues, says Nicole White, residence director at Kennedy. "This year, every program has a theme of purpose and practice. As they're going through, I encourage my staff to think about how it helps them find a sense of purpose or practice certain skills or get on a path they want to be on." Attendance at these programs has been exceptional, averaging around 25 percent of the residents in the hall. Donovan also cites the lack of disciplinary problems as evidence that things are going well: violations, from vandalism to alcohol in the dorms, have been almost nonexistent, and he notes that "things that often are problems in residence life are actually symptoms of the discontent that comes from the sophomore experiences people are having."
Still, White says there have some learning curves. "Last year we when it came to training RAs, we told them 'this is the year residents will have a slump and they'll be very unsure and you should be ready for them.' And I don't think my RAs experienced that quite as much, we maybe over-prepared them. This year our goal is to focus less on 'someone's going to have a problem, here's how you help them,' and more to focus on, 'Here's how you empower and engage our students.'"
"I think you have to be a little bit flexible when going into this program," White continues. "There are a lot of things you think you know, and then you get there and the students don't react the way you thought. It's important to have a pulse on things, to ask students what they think. And not just the super involved students; talk to the students who don't volunteer, who don't get involved, and see what they want, what they need."
Davis agrees. "If you walked out and asked a hundred sophomores what they need, maybe two would say anything, the rest would say I'm fine, I'm fine. But tomorrow, another five or six will go to class for the first time and decide they don't like what they're doing and think, man I need a change from this. At that moment, they require assistance from us. The program has to be flexible and ever present so the moment they need something, they think of us and we can respond to them."