Of the second-year students attending four-year institutions who responded to a Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2015a) survey, roughly two thirds wanted help weighing the pros and cons of their career choice and three out of four expressed a desire to gain experience in their field. Although most sophomores have declared majors, they continue to evaluate their options and need career information.
Despite students’ need for assistance, higher education officials shared with Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2015b) that second-year programming was among their “least used interventions.” Consequently, students continue to report a desire for help. In a follow-up survey, half of the same respondents continued to want additional information on experiential learning and a third continued to have questions about the advantages and disadvantages of their chosen occupation.
In an effort to address this need, Augustana University provided a weekend sophomore retreat during the last three years. Timed around academic advising in November, staff traveled with 30 students to a nearby retreat center to discuss vocation, service and purposeful work, together as a community. After attending this event, the planning committee hoped that students would 1) articulate the next step in their vocational discernment, 2) identify the questions they should be asking as they clarify their purpose, and 3) describe their personal definition of a meaningful life. These learning objectives were achieved through peer-led group discussions, readings, written reflection, an alumni panel, faculty presentations, and breakout groups.
Students’ responses to the event were very positive. Ninety-five percent of survey respondents reported (i.e., strongly agree or agree) that the event helped them understand the questions they should be asking; 90% agreed that the event helped them describe their own personal definition of a meaningful life. Every participant was able to name possible next steps to clarify their vocation. Many of these future activities related to experiential learning, with nearly two-thirds articulating an intention to pursue service-learning, research, internships, or relevant employment.
Students also provided the following valuable input about ways to improve the event, which staff used to refine the program. Institutions who are considering such a retreat could also use this feedback to plan an event on their own campus.
To ensure all of the small group participants are united in the shared experience of exploring and discerning their purpose, Augustana asks faculty and staff to nominate individuals. Many of these students have not yet selected a major or are unable to pursue their chosen program because of a low grade point average. Staff also meet with students who are interested in attending but were not nominated, to assess if the event would be beneficial. Creating groups of individuals with similar experiences maximizes the benefits of the group, creates a mutual environment of vulnerability, and normalizes each other’s experience. Past attendees expressed appreciation in learning “how similarly we experience things” and that “I am not the only one who is lost.”
Let the Students Do the Work
Upper class students who attended the event the year before facilitate small group discussions as mentors and also follow up with nominated students to encourage them to attend. Every year participants indicate that these discussion groups are the most beneficial aspect of the event. Students report making new friends, reflecting more deeply, and discovering they are “no longer…isolated.” One student shared in the survey, “There was something so special about my small group. We confided in one another. I did not have someone to talk to about these deep things until this retreat. [I realize now] we are all meant to help one another.”
Given its powerful impact, students also asked that mentors host follow-up discussions after the event, which Augustana will launch this coming year. As one student shared, “There is a huge drop in specific programming from freshman to sophomore year. I would love to see more events like this.”
Students Enjoy Hearing from Faculty
During the event three professors share the highlights of their own vocational journey. Many stay at the retreat center through the duration of event, creating space for follow-up conversations with students. Attendees have consistently rated faculty speakers as the second “most helpful” activity of the event, particularly because, as students shared, it was beneficial to “see a different side of a few Augie faculty members” and know you have “a lot of resources available to help you.”
Train Mentors to Listen Instead of Lead
Staff ask the upper-class student mentors who served as group leaders to read an excerpt from A Hidden Wholeness, written by Parker Palmer (2009), who emphasizes the importance of letting others answer their own questions instead of providing advice. Attendees have noted this perspective, written by one, “It was a really nice experience to have your peer mentor sitting and listening, rather than lecturing. They helped to raise even better questions so you can clarify your answers.”
Define the Objectives of the Event Carefully
To help students consider their nomination and invitation, staff created a video (Augustana, 2015) and used testimonials from previous attendees. At the beginning of the event, staff facilitate a large-group discussion about the ways to support each other in discernment and emphasize that the retreat may spark more uncertainty because it introduces questions students may not have yet considered. This prevents attendees from expecting that they be certain of their future goals at the conclusion of the retreat.
Collaborate with Colleagues
It takes a village to maximize the value of the event. Campus Life or Student Affairs can identify students to invite based upon their unique observations in the residence hall. Staff can also host breakout sessions on community, civic engagement, diversity, and service. Similarly, Campus Ministries can provide input on creating an inclusive environment that welcomes all faiths, while career specialists speak about career exploration resources and ways to gain experience.
In conclusion, students’ sophomore year is a unique time for exploring adulthood and one’s purpose. Noel Levitz identified second-year programming as a “promising practice” and encouraged higher education administrators to tailor its interventions to meet the distinctive needs of this population. Differentiated programming, such as a retreat, promotes and supports the undertaking of exploration because it helps participants discern their answer to common questions together as a community.
Augustana University. (2015). Sophomore retreat video. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/152116018.
Palmer, P. J. (2009). A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Jossey-Bass.
Ruffalo Noel Levitz. (2015a). Attitudes of Second-Year College Students That Influence College Completion. Retrieved from http://learn.ruffalonl.com/rs/395-EOG-977/images/2015_Attitudes_of_Second_Year_Students.pdf.
Ruffalo Noel Levitz. (2015b). Retention Practices Benchmark Report. Retrieved from http://learn.ruffalonl.com/rs/395-EOG-977/images/2015RetentionPracticesBenchmarkReport.pdf.
Billie Streufert is the Executive Director of the Success Center at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After earning a master’s degree in counseling and student personnel, she has worked 15+ years in career services. In addition to presenting at annual NCDA conferences and participating in the NCDA Leadership Academy, she is an NCDA Merit award winner, Fulbright alumna and contributing writer for USA Today College. She may be reached at email@example.com.
Ann Rosendale serves as Campus Pastor at Augustana University and earned a Master of Divinity degree and Master of Arts (Youth Ministry) degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. She is dedicated to helping students faithfully discern their calling and use their gifts to serve the world around them. Ann may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.