Sophomore College: A decade of broadening horizons

Photo: L.A. Cicero Rice

Former Provost Condoleezza Rice, above, taught a class on the fall of communism for the first-ever Sophomore College program, one of only five professors to teach classes that year as part of a university initiative to combat the phenomenon known as “sophomore slump.”

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Director of Freshman and Sophomore Programs Sharon Palmer said she hopes Sophomore College trains students to be "high interactive" so that they will take advantage of other opportunities provided to them on campus.

"Sophomore College got the ball rolling for me..."

More than nine years have passed since the student who recently spoke those words joined 49 other sophomores to take part in an experimental university program matching students and faculty for two weeks of intensive studies prior to the beginning of Autumn Quarter. But the same sentiments have been expressed in similar ways by hundreds of other students who have gone through the lauded Sophomore College program since it was introduced in 1995.

To call Sophomore College a success story as it celebrates its 10th anniversary would be an understatement. Student evaluations have consistently hovered around the 98 percent approval rating. Applications to the program always have far exceeded the capacity. The list of faculty who have taught the courses reads like a "who's who" of the university's finest scholars.

When Sophomore College was born out of a desire to combat the hard-to-define phenomenon known as "sophomore slump" in 1995, administrators had no way of knowing that the experiment would go on to become the symbolic representation of the strides the university has taken in undergraduate education and would serve as a model to other universities who were looking to make similar reforms.

The fresh batch of 284 sophomores who will be arriving next week with what they feel is a Sophomore College "badge of honor" will have even more reasons to celebrate their inclusion in the elite group. A recent study evaluating the progress of the inaugural class proved what many who have been active with the program suspected: Students who participated in the program were more likely than their counterparts to engage in more and better relationships with faculty, participate more fully in academic opportunities, and make different types of decisions about postgraduate study that they might not have planned on.

For many students, Sophomore College is one of the most profound and memorable periods of their entire experience at the university. Sara Wampler said her participation in the program significantly influenced her plans during her college career and created several opportunities for research projects.

Before taking her Sophomore College course in 2000, Wampler intended to graduate with a major in symbolic systems, spend a couple of years working and then enroll in law school. After taking a course on Nazi resistance writings in World War II-era Germany, Wampler added a history minor, did a summer of sponsored research in Berlin and combined her interest in the Nazi resistance writings with her symbolic systems major for her honors thesis.

Now, instead of law school, Wampler plans to pursue a doctorate in humanities after saving some money while working in a marketing job at Google. Wampler graduated in 2003.

"It was probably the biggest influence on my college career," Wampler said. "Developing such a strong relationship with a professor early on was really great. I came out of my freshman year without a sense of direction and [Sophomore College] really opened up more doors for me at Stanford."

The program is structured to be intense, but most students seem to thrive on the challenge and don't complain about cutting their summer short. Sophomores in the program arrive two and a half weeks before Autumn Quarter classes start and are grouped together in student housing with a dozen or so of their peers who are enrolled in the same course to encourage bonding.

Students meet every day with the faculty member and two course assistants for instruction, field trips, film screenings and other course-related activities. The students earn two credits for the course and pay a $400 fee toward the cost of board, which can be offset by financial aid.

Students can apply for up to three courses and rank them according to preference. Faculty instructors select 12 to 14 students per class based on their questionnaire responses and statements from their advisers. They do not review the students' prior grades.

The courses couple intense study with high levels of interaction and socialization among the students and faculty and usually culminate in a group or individual project. Many of the courses also differ from the regular curriculum, to allow students to gauge their interest in other subject matter or explore fields of study that are vastly different from their planned major.

The hope, said Sharon Palmer, director of Freshman and Sophomore Programs, is that students will learn to feel more comfortable working with a faculty member and will gain confidence in their contributions to a group who studies, lives and socializes together.

"Essentially, we're training students to be what we call 'high-interactive,' Palmer said. "We're training them to take full advantage of their opportunities."

It appears that the goals are being met, based on the findings from a recent study completed by Julie Greenwood, a 2003 graduate who did her master's thesis on student/professor interactions that used the Sophomore College program as its focal point. Greenwood presented the study at Stanford in March 2004 and presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association the following month.

Greenwood contacted 43 of the original 50 students who participated in the first Sophomore College in 1995 and compared them with a control group of 39 students who had applied to the program that same year but did not get in. The two groups were carefully matched for gender, race, entering SAT scores and majors.

Although the two groups were nearly exactly matched in their cumulative grade point average when they graduated (3.57 for participants and 3.58 for non-participants), the study found significant differences in the kinds of overall experiences that the different groups of students had at the university. Sophomore College participants reported more and better interactions with faculty; they were more likely to have participated in research; and they cited faculty as the most important influence on their postgraduate career and education decisions. Participants were twice as likely to pursue doctoral study and only one-third as likely to pursue professional degrees.

The effects of Sophomore College participation were most pronounced for women. Those who participated in the program reported the highest ratings for each of five measures of faculty interaction and influence, while non-Sophomore College women reported the lowest.

"I'm encouraged by the time, effort and money that Stanford has put into thinking about its undergraduate curriculum," Greenwood said. "The study showed a number of things, particularly that the program made significant differences in the ways that academic careers evolved [after students completed the program]. There was a special energy surrounding that first year's experience."

Although the study has provided the first analysis of the program's impacts, administrators were convinced of its value from the beginning. Other programs like Freshman Introductory Seminars and Sophomore Seminars have since sprung up at the university, and more than 75 percent of freshmen and sophomores now participate in one of the programs.

Former President Gerhard Casper ranks Sophomore College and the Freshman Introductory Seminars as the two most valuable initiatives the university has undertaken in its efforts at improving undergraduate education. Despite the demands of his job as president, Casper signed on to teach a course on constitutionalism in the program's second year, a class he has taught three subsequent times.

"The class structure makes it possible to create a continuity that you can't create anywhere else in the university," Casper said. "There's complete focus on a subject, and the learning curve of the students in such conditions is much higher than anywhere else."

Because of its success, Sophomore College expanded in 1999 to an all-time high of more than 430 students and 36 courses in an attempt to extend the program's reach to more sophomores. Administrators quickly realized that the program had grown too big for its own good and -- citing concerns about a loss of intimacy and the program's increasing expense -- scaled it back the following year.

Although Sophomore College remains a highly competitive opportunity available to only half who apply, Palmer said she is happy that the program's lessons have been duplicated in other programs and seminars around the university. She also said she is glad to see the study results, which shed some light on the kinds of impacts Sophomore College is having.

"It's nice to be able to go back to the faculty and say that this confirms that you're doing amazing things," Palmer said. "And it confirms for us, on top of the anecdotal evidence, that the goals of the program are being met in some way."