Starting college is typically an exciting time, one full of celebrations, packing lists, new friends, and, of course, icebreakers. But for the Class of 2024, the pandemic turned the first-year experience on its head. Feedback from the WPI community—as well as from other colleges and universities around the country—made it clear that first-year students had a much different, more challenging experience than classes in years past, Many members of the WPI community were committed to finding a way to address this.
Enter the Sophomore Experience, or SophEx.
Originally a collaborative effort between the offices of Academic Advising and Student Affairs, SophEx is a signature yearlong program described as an immersive social connection adventure that aims to provide an engaging, supportive experience for the sophomore Class of 2024, whose first-year experience was drastically altered in response to the pandemic.
“These students not only had an unconventional first year of college, but their last year of high school as well,” says Assistant Director of Academic Advising Angela Romano. “They were sandwiched between these two challenging experiences. It was a no-brainer for us to do something for them here at WPI now that we’re returning to a better normal.”
Romano has been working with Associate Director of Student Activities Christine Ziev and Associate Director of Residential Services Matt Foster to create a program that’s not only supportive and community-focused, but fun.
“We want them to have more of a connection to WPI than they might have been able to in the past year,” Foster explains. “We want to give them a better understanding of who WPI is and our traditions, the things that happen year-to-year that weren’t able to take place because of the pandemic. We want them to be able to feel that connection and be reminded of why they chose WPI in the first place.”
Building Genuine Connections
Participants will join their choice of one of nine Topic Communities that range in focus from art and community outreach to small business & entrepreneurship and wellness. Topic Communities will meet regularly throughout the fall term with a variety of interactive social and engaging opportunities led by Topic Community Fellows (a WPI faculty or staff member) and Topic Community Peer Mentors and built around their Topic Community’s specific theme. They’ll also be able to attend bigger, more overarching activities open to the entire SophEx community, including WooSox games, shows at the Hanover Theatre, bingo nights, and fry bars.
Activities may have a different focus or theme, but each one has the common goal of helping students “build genuine social connections with those who have similar interests to theirs—connections that we hope will be long-term and translate into involvement in other clubs and projects they’d enjoy,” explains Ziev.
“I’d love for them to surprise themselves with what they can do. They’ve tackled a really challenging year, and I want them to see and celebrate a little of that resilience in themselves.” -Angela Romano
Attending weekly meetings on top of an already busy schedule may seem daunting, but students don’t need to worry. “If they can’t make it or aren’t interested in a particular Topic Community meeting, that’s okay. They shouldn't be discouraged if they can’t make it from week to week,” Foster explains. “Participating in Welcome Week and other less frequent larger-scale events as part of the program is a great way to explore the campus and local communities.”
While the ultimate focus of the program is for students to explore their passions, connect with peers, faculty, and staff, and immerse themselves in areas of interest, Romano has an additional goal in mind.
“I’d love for them to surprise themselves with what they can do,” she says. “They’ve tackled a really challenging year, and I want them to see and celebrate a little of that resilience in themselves. They’ve learned a lot and now’s the fun part where they get to be involved and engage more with their peers. It’s a great marriage between intellectual and social engagement.”
When Ziev, Foster, and Romano were asked what Topic Community they would choose to join (Art, Small Business & Entrepreneurship, and Community Outreach, respectively), Ziev noticed a common theme among all three that was exactly what they want to convey to SophEx students: “None of the topics we picked necessarily aligned with what we do for our jobs. Some of your passions can align with your job or your major, sure, but they don’t necessarily have to. It’s all about what’s fun, interesting, and exciting to you.”
- By Allison Racicot