When public health guidance prevented first-year students from coming to campus in the fall of 2020, student leaders and the administration created two virtual programs to help students connect with each other.

The Autumn First Year Mentor groups, held in autumn quarter 2020, brought together upper-class students with groups of eight to 10 frosh or first-year transfer students for weekly meetings in which new students were introduced to campus resources and given opportunities to get to know each other.

In spring quarter 2021, these small groups were combined into Virtual First Year Communities of about 200 students.

“The purpose of these communities was to build a sense of belonging with their peers, and also to plug students into the support network that we have on campus,” said Cole Shiflett, associate dean in Residential Education, within Student Affairs.

Students could sign up for small gatherings, such as a chocolate tasting with chocolates mailed to them, as well as larger events, including playing the virtual game Among Us. A virtual career fair highlighted research opportunities and internships.

“The intent was to try to get as many students as we could to attend,” said Aden Beyene, Class of 2024 and a member of the Frosh Council. The Frosh Council worked on the events and also used social media to foster a sense of community for the class. “We recognize that students are concerned about the lack of community and the difficulties of forming connections in virtual settings.”

Planning a new sophomore experience

All of these activities have helped, but class leaders say there are more opportunities.

“One big thing that the class of 2024 needs is the sense of community,” said Frosh Council member Emily Liang, Class of 2024. “We haven’t really had the opportunity to have serious conversations with each other, like deep, late-night study sessions – things that bring people closer together.”

Although the details for next year are still being worked out, “we will make sure there is special time and attention dedicated to sophomores,” said Orlando White, associate dean in Residential Education. “What are the tools they need to be successful both socially and academically? We don’t want a copy and paste of the frosh experience they didn’t get.”

White is co-chair of a task force that is considering several ways to support the Class of 2024 as they come to campus after a virtual first year:

  • Welcoming and community-building activities

Because many sophomores will be arriving on campus for the first time, there are many welcome back activities being planned, including a Sophomore Welcome that will be held Sunday, Sept. 19. The event will help the Class of 2024 kick off the new academic year with class t-shirts, class pins and – most important – in-person activities. Some will be held jointly with incoming first-year students, while others will be just for sophomores.

Other activities are also in the works for the fall, including a Sophomore Formal and a scavenger hunt for sophomores to help them get familiar with campus and the San Francisco area.

“Having an orientation activity will be helpful,” said Jaden Morgan, Class of 2024, who served on the Frosh Council. “I feel like a lot of people didn’t take advantage of a lot of opportunities and resources this year, because there’s kind of a disconnect being in a virtual environment.”

  • Sophomore advising structures and academic support

In addition to having access to the traditional academic support and programs, sophomores will be able to opt into several new programs to help fill in gaps that may have been left by the pandemic.

A Sophomore 101 course, built on the solid framework of the Frosh 101 program, will focus on the most important elements of sophomore transition – including some key aspects of the original Frosh 101 activities and reflections, such as living in a community, that didn’t make sense to cover when students weren’t on campus. Course sections will be facilitated by older students and will bring together students who live in the same neighborhood.

Sophomore Wayfinders, run by the Academic Advising office, will pair interested sophomores with a faculty or staff mentor to help them articulate their goals – both inside and outside the classroom – and determine how to reach them. Some programming will start this summer, though a cohort of students will also begin in the fall.

“People feel like they would have made some of these connections if they had been on campus,” said Warren Chiang, associate dean and senior director of First Year Experience. “This is an opportunity to make them.”

  • Residential support, especially in all-sophomore housing

The new ResX initiative offers the opportunity for all-sophomore housing, where the resident fellows and resident assistants will have specialized training in the needs of sophomores.

“Being surrounded by people who are just as unfamiliar with the campus as you are – we can bond over the fact that we had an entire year of online university and still have the opportunity to meet people,” Liang said.

Michael Chhay, Class of 2024, served on the Frosh Council and was recently elected as one of the sophomore presidents – the group that will work on community building and event planning for next year’s sophomore class.

“Our platform was basically looking for a redefined sophomore experience,” Chhay said. They hope to start the year with activities to help the class members get to know each other and the campus. “We are definitely working to make the Class of 2024 super excited for our sophomore year.”

Filling gaps for rising juniors and seniors

Although this past year’s sophomores got to start their Stanford careers on campus, they were on campus for only two quarters during their frosh year. A junior class working group is developing plans for this class, including helping them adapt to the new ResX initiative.

Among the many ideas under consideration are a resource fair and a re-orientation program to ease juniors back into Stanford life and get them reacquainted with campus and each other. The goal is to help build social and academic connections without overwhelming students. An issue that some of these students may feel is that they now have to choose, for example, between off-campus study and on-campus experiences they want.

“They feel like they’re mourning lost time – now they’re going to have to cram three and a half years of experiences into two years,” said Emelyn A. dela Peña, associate vice provost for inclusion, community and integrative learning, who is co-chair of the junior class working group. “The culture at Stanford can feel overwhelming. As we plan for fall, we’re looking for ways to help students make healthy choices.”

For rising seniors, the focus for the fall is on giving them opportunities to reconnect with each other in person – and to reconnect with the campus. Senior year is also a time when students start to connect with the Stanford Alumni Association, and that is an important element of plans for next year as well. A working group composed of the senior class presidents and administration representatives is discussing a range of social and pre-professional events that would give seniors these opportunities.

For example, they are considering holding some Senior Nights, which have traditionally been off campus, in distinctive on-campus locations. They are looking at adding outdoor programs in the fall and spring at The Arbor, as well as holding block parties and pop-up events around campus. The group is also discussing if focused career planning would be helpful since this class saw two key summers for internships disrupted by the pandemic.

These are not all new events, and many of them may be open to the whole community, not just seniors. But they represent an important part of the Stanford experience, said Nate Boswell, special assistant in the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, and the working group wants to be sure they don’t simply get lost after having been postponed during the pandemic.

“It’s hard to stay connected to one another, to be healthy and well, to blow off steam,” Boswell said. “We see that, and we want to create opportunities that are fun and healthy. Students and staff began working on this a few years ago – the pandemic just clarified the need.”