Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Does the sophomore year matter?

Well, of course it does! Every period during the college experience matters, at least to some degree (pun intended). And how much time we have spent trying to develop some periods as being more meaningful, influential, formative, important than others.

I am an educator who has based a disproportionate share of his career trying to call more attention to the importance of the beginning college experience. For much of my career that “beginning” was defined as a “beginning” literally as in students starting college for the first time, most commonly right after high school.

But more recently, my work has broadened to focus on another kind of “new” student, the transfer student (the subject of another blog, or more, surely). And my work has also focused on senior students, as in graduating students; and on other students that I coined a phrase for as “students in transition” (introduced into the higher ed lexicon in 1995 when my colleagues and I at the University of South Carolina organized our first so-called “Students In Transition” national conference (which we continue to this day.

And now I find myself playing a small role in my university’s latest national effort to call attention to still another transition point: the sophomore year.

The USC National Resource Center had been including the sophomore year as a theme of focus in its annual Students in Transition conferences since 1995. Then in 2000 we published our first monograph on the topic of second year students Visible Solutions for Invisible Students. And in October 2009 Jossey-Bass published the first full length book treatment of the importance of the sophomore year, entitled Helping Sophomores Succeed with a team of lead editors from USC including myself and especially my colleagues Stuart Hunter and Barbara Tobolowsky.

And this week and next I am getting my head in gear to join several hundred higher educators for our first ever conference focused exclusively on this population, the Institute for Sophomore Student Success, April 11-13 (

So, is this a transition you should be following? What do you know about the experience of second year students at your institution? Is this a distinct period of student transition, growth, differentiation? Are there problems that are especially acute during this period? What does being a sophomore mean now that most students don’t enter as a coherent class with many characteristics in common?

The literature so far suggests one overriding theme: the need for second year students to have developed a sense of purpose if they are to derive maximum value from their education at all, and at any one institution in particular. And the underlying interest driving this attention, is, you guessed it: the 800 pound gorilla in the room: Retention! If students develop that sense of purpose and a concomitant sense of fit between that purpose and this institution, then presto we get enhanced student retention, the holy grail of the enrollment managers.
So, did you develop a sense of purpose in your second year? Are today’s students similar or different from you and me in that regard?
I don’t recall that I did. But I did have one memorable experience that suggested ultimate potential for purpose for me, and that was my coming out party amongst my peers. I will make this story very short.

It was a soggy March night in Marietta, Ohio, in 1963. The Ohio River had flooded and an access road to my residence hall had been flooded. A taxi cab driver had tried to traverse this road, discovered the flood water, attempted a U turn in front of our residence hall and became bogged down in the mud. Students discovered this and decided the driver was a fit object for ridicule and displaced frustration aggression. They taunted this man; hurled objects and epithets at him. He couldn’t believe this treatment from upper class college kids. He came into the “dorm” seeking help and none was offered. So I attempted to organize a rescue party to get him pushed out of the mud. I failed. Noone would support me. Stunned by the callous indifference of my fellow students, I fired off an old fashioned letter to the editor of our student newspaper in which I blasted my fellow residence hall students. If they didn’t know who I was before, they did then. And so did my professors. And everyone began to look at me differently—as someone who was different; who would take a stand; a sort of Don Quixote. And overnight, literally, that sophomore year night, the expectations others had of me changed significantly And the expectations I had of myself were transformed. And I have never been the same since.

Does the sophomore year matter? Who knows? It did for me. Did it for you?

Maybe it will matter more for students if it matters more for those of us who provide “the sophomore year experience”.

So stay tuned and watch what kind of success USC has in driving a call for attention to this latest student transition. Were the Greeks right when they described “wise fools” as “sophmoric”? I predict this new focus will yield more wisdom than that stereotype.

-John Gardner


  1. Great post! We of course feel that a great way for students to discover their sense of purpose is to study abroad :)

  2. I agree, absolutely and I regret that I didn’t suggest that more explicitly. I have seen the positive impact of study abroad on many of my own students, and very close to home, my son. Another vantage point for me to observe this impact was through a decade’s service on the board of trustees of the International Partnership for Service Learning, which facilitates an experience of profound and often transformative impact for and on students.