Featured Stories

The Sophomore Project

Once SMU determined students would return to campus in fall 2021 for in-person instruction and activity, leaders in student and academic affairs recognized a one-time acute concern for sophomores. To address this concern, SMU student and academic affairs partnered in a large-scale retention and engagement effort called The Sophomore Project.

Many sophomores would come to campus for the first time after attending virtually, living internationally, or living at home when they normally would have lived on campus. Some experienced COVID-19 personally or within their families, some lost loved ones or experienced significant financial hardship, and all were affected. Originally conceived and proposed as a Student Affairs Innovation Grant, Dr. K.C. Mmeje, Vice President for Student Affairs, elected to elevate the project to an institutional priority.

Led by a Steering Committee (SPSC) chaired by Dr. Dawn F. Norris, 80+ conversationalists participated in outreach to 1,500+ sophomores during the first seven weeks of the fall semester. Traditional Student Affairs strategies often rely on in-person gatherings and organic opportunities to connect which are challenging to re-create on-line. Each sophomore’s experience with COVID-19 was different, making a customized engagement and retention strategy optimal. The SPSC worked with available data to sort sophomores into three categories defined as high-, medium-, and low-risk, each with their own approach. Factors contributing to a designation as high-risk included previous retention concerns, PELL eligibility, international or virtual students coming to campus for the first-time, first-generation status, etc. While both medium- and low-risk students demonstrated no obvious areas of concern, low-risk sophomores were connected to a robust leadership or scholarship cohort with significant support from a professional student or academic affairs staff member.

High-risk sophomores, our students of particular concern, were individually invited by a conversationalist (a student or academic affairs faculty or staff member) for a one-on-one conversation over a beverage or a snack at a campus dining outlet. Conversations created an opportunity for casual dialogue where the student could feel cared for, seen, and heard. Trained conversationalists elicited responses to two qualitative inquires:

  • Tell me about your first year at SMU (opportunity to listen and identify challenges).
  • Tell me what you’re looking forward to at SMU (encourage a vision of themselves at SMU now and through to graduation and identify areas to offer resources).

Medium-risk sophomores received an email invitation to request a conversation.

Low-risk sophomores received targeted support through their high engagement scholar programs with no additional outreach from the Sophomore Project.

Data visualization allowed for interpretation of both quantitative (e.g. date and location of conversation, cost, etc.) and qualitative data (case notes.) Initial findings include the following:

  • 107 completed conversations; 55 from highest risk group
  • 3 Caring Community Concerns (2 identified by the Project)
  • 6 student retention concerns (3 identified by the Project)
  • 90 underrepresented racial minority students
  • 46 men; 61 women
  • 90 underrepresented racial minority students
  • 46 men; 61 women
  • 34 remote entire year; 8 fall only; 8 spring only (50 total students)
  • 30 Hilltop Scholars
  • 13 Greek students
  • 12 First Generation students
  • 7 international students
  • #1 concern for sophomores = social/getting involved

A preliminary review of the case notes from conversationalists reveals the following themes:

  • Sophomores were overwhelmingly appreciative of and thankful for the conversations
  • Many felt like a freshman and a sophomore at the same time
  • Most described a feeling of disconnectedness last year and hope for a greater connection this year
  • Sophomores described the adjustment to virtual followed by the new adjustment to being back on campus as challenging; particularly the differences in learning in those two very different environments.

One of our conversationalists described the experience this way: “The meetings were incredibly meaningful for the students who availed themselves of this opportunity. As a conversationalist, I too benefited from the interactions as they refilled my cup.”

In addition to furthering specific goals and objectives of both the SMU and Student Affairs strategic plans, The Sophomore Project offers one method for ensuring students, whether a whole class, or a sub-population such as students impacted by a residence hall flood, know they are cared for and valued by their institution alongside provision of resources to support their specific needs. The highly flexible, low-cost strategy leverages the unique strengths student and academic affairs professionals bring to bear in support of student engagement and retention.