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Why 2021's college sophomores are the new freshman


All right. Most colleges are back in person for this fall semester following a year of virtual classes, which means millions of second-year students are finally on campus for the first time. It's a big transition, so colleges are offering sophomore support usually reserved for first years. Here's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Freshman year on campus for Rachel Payne lasted about a week. California State University Chico shut down the dorms and sent students, including Rachel, home when COVID cases spiked last September. So Rachel did her first year of college from her childhood bedroom.

RACHEL PAYNE: I just, like, hung on my parents all day and all night, which was really tragic (laughter).

NADWORNY: The main entertainment was watching "Criminal Minds" on TV.

PAYNE: As fun as that is, like, you're still just watching Netflix with your parents.

NADWORNY: Not quite what she'd had in mind. This fall, Rachel is back on campus, living in an apartment.

PAYNE: I started planning my room, like, two months before.

NADWORNY: She's a second-year, but she feels like a newbie.

PAYNE: I feel like I'm a freshman but, like, a little bit extra knowledge on how classes work but, like, not fully. Like, maybe, like, a little touch of a sophomore.

NADWORNY: I've heard this from so many second-year students - navigating campus maps, making friends, learning the rules of campus. It's a challenge. And schools are taking note. Orientation programs typically designed for first-year students are now designed for second-years. Colleges where only freshmen are guaranteed on-campus housing have extended that to second-years, too.

AUSTIN DUCKETT: On my mind has definitely been our current sophomores. It's been a tough time for them.

NADWORNY: Austin Duckett is the assistant dean of students at Widener University in Pennsylvania.

DUCKETT: As we were getting them back into the swing of things, you know, it's really not about what you missed. It's about what you can gain.

NADWORNY: He says his main goal with the second-years is finally building a real community.

DUCKETT: To really just deepen the connection to our established campus traditions and our school pride because it's hard to have school pride and know what the campus traditions are if you're behind a screen.

NADWORNY: At Widener, it's a small college with a bunch of traditions and superstitions, like this arch you walk through as a first year. You're never supposed to walk through it again until you graduate. All that campus hoopla - they'll indoctrinate their second-years now. And they'll also talk about resources and connect them to actual adults and peers that can help them in the flesh. Duckett says there's also a big focus in sophomore programming on mental health awareness.

KATHERINE ZIMMERMAN: All my virtual classes left me feeling very alienated.

NADWORNY: Katherine Zimmerman, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says her mental challenges were the hardest part about learning online. Not being able to interact with people fed what Catherine calls her anxiety monster.

ZIMMERMAN: As someone who has struggled with mental health a lot in my life, COVID put me in a middle of forest and told me to find my way out. It's really dark in this forest. And I have no idea, where is north? Where is west?

NADWORNY: Aware that mental health was a serious issue for its second-year students, the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a bunch of events for sophomores focused on well-being and belonging. Students got access to an app developed by the Center for Healthy Minds, a research center on campus. Katherine says she's been using the app to meditate and track her mental thinking. And so far this fall, she's feeling much better. Most of the campus is vaccinated, and she's been making new friends.

ZIMMERMAN: I'll just be walking on my floor, and people will come up and say hi and ask you about how your day was. And they tell you lots of stories. They tell you where they're from.

NADWORNY: And the academics are going better for her, too. She had a moment of gratitude in class recently. She looked around at the packed lecture hall and just thought, this is it. I'm finally experiencing college the way it should be. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.


Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.