Students walk across the College of Wooster during the first day of class. The college, and others across the country, are figuring out how to best engage sophomores. Photo: Matt Dilyard/The College of Wooster

Lots of attention is typically showered on the bookends of a college experience: students’ first and last years on campus. But what about that time in the middle?

It can be tough for both juniors and sophomores, said Michelle Johnson, associate dean for advising at the College of Wooster. Juniors, at least, have declared a major and have some level of connection to faculty members. Traditionally, the sophomore class could feel lost.

“It is a crucial time for retention purposes,” she said. “If that year doesn’t go well, this is a great time (for students) to say, ‘Well, that school is not working out.’ “

This current crop of sophomores, the collegiate class of 2024, is one of particular interest. COVID-19 shaped their milestones. Their senior year of high school was marked by a shift to online learning, followed by an anything-but-typical first year of college.

Some are arriving for either the first time ever or the first time in a while to a campus that may look or feel different. It can make year two feel a lot like year one.

“Now that so many things are opening back up, I finally know what I missed out on,” said Kim Nguyen, a 19-year-old Wooster sophomore from Columbus.

The pressure is on for institutions to focus on retention after the pandemic-induced enrollment woes of 2020. Colleges, including Wooster, are trying to figure out how to keep students engaged and enrolled.

Roughly 2,000 students in total enrolled full-time last fall at the campus that looks like one you’d see in a movie. The year there unfolded among the big trees and stately buildings in a similar way as it did at other places. There were more online classes, mask requirements and a shift to full remote learning for some of the fall semester due to an uptick of COVID cases. Campus traditions, those moments tightly woven into the small private college experience, weren’t held in the usual way or at all.

Five hundred and thirty students began their first years at that time. A year later, 475 remain as sophomores.

“Historically, we know that students who are more engaged are more likely to retain,” said Myrna Hernández, dean of students. “For students who are choosing not to stay, are those pandemic-related reasons, or are those other reasons?”

The college held several events aimed at sophomores before classes began last week. Tables dotted the student center where students could pop by to learn how to connect with alumni or to talk about opportunities in a STEM club. Though some first-year students also were there, the bulk of the offerings were intended to help students connect to the campus’ resources and organizations compared with the more topical nature of the introductory orientation.

Sophomores must also take a “Life By Design” class. Its course catalog entry says it helps “explore and clarify your interests, values, and strengths and activate your leadership and resilience skills to help you thrive on and off campus.”

Sophomore Giselle Rivera just returned to the campus last week. Rivera, 19, went home to Georgia last fall to study remotely due to COVID concerns.

“They weren’t enforcing a lot of rules,” she said of the college, adding that there didn’t seem to be a lot of opportunities to leave her dorm room last year.

Being back on campus is a shift. It took her a minute to find the entrance to an under-construction building again. The whole experience reminds her of what it feels like to return home after a long vacation.

“It was just a mindset change, like a mental thing,” Rivera said. “I had to be like, ‘No, I’m actually here and I’m actually staying.’ “

Hernández keeps reminding people that only current seniors have experienced a full, uninterrupted year at the college. Because of that, officials are trying to provide supplemental programming that fits the specific needs of each class.

“Our focus is trying to build individual connections for students, being pretty intentional about paying attention to students that aren’t getting connected,” Hernández said.

Rivera is capitalizing on the roots she formed during the almost full year she spent online. She made it a point to attend student organizations’ meetings, to turn her camera on during class, to feel like she was making friends.

“Because if not, I’m going to be very sad when I go to campus and I talk to nobody, eat by myself, walk by myself,” she said.

Classmate Jaylin Hudson also wanted to participate in extracurriculars last year, but wasn’t interested in doing two or three hours of club meetings virtually when he already was spending hours online for classes. It was a lot of screen time.

“My learning style is all about consistency,” said Hudson, also 19 and from Georgia. “It’s kind of hard to learn concepts when you’re in-person for a short amount of time and you’re virtual for the rest.”

He noted the difference in his midterm grades. The marks were higher during the times he was in person and lower during online sessions.

“That really shows a reflection of how I performed,” he said. “For those who are hands-on and visual learners, I know they probably struggled a lot.”

Wooster’s Academic Resource Center at the college already is busy. Director Amber Larson said she has never seen so many sophomores pop in so early to pick up planning guides and calendars.

Faculty members are “very aware” that students are returning to a different situation, she said. They may have never been to in-person college classes exclusively, or in some cases, at all.

“The cultural norms of a classroom are going to have to be retaught,” Larson said.

There also have been more conversations with faculty on how to be more aware of the nonverbal things that students may be experiencing or displaying. So much has happened outside the classroom over the past 18 months that can impact what happens in it. Larson said she’s confident, though, that everyone will find their footing quickly.

The college is one of just a handful in Ohio — so far, at least — to require vaccines. Face coverings must be worn in indoor spaces aside from private offices and residences.

Masks are still required for visitors to sophomore Hudson’s room, as is hand sanitizer when entering. He dips into a stockpile of Lysol and Clorox wipes to clean things when they leave. The pandemic taught him to look out for himself. Plus, more outbreaks could bring a shift back to remote classes or getting sick.

“I feel like that’s going to probably be a barrier between me gaining friends,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of people on this campus, they really don’t want to wear a mask or don’t want to follow the COVID guidelines.”

He’s still trying to begin carving out a niche on the campus he’s been at for a year. He’s involved in student government, got an on-campus job, and is thinking about trying out for the tennis team. The first few days of in-person classes were already better, he said. It all seems like what the college experience should be.

“Hopefully that works out and I can get a gist of what it was before COVID,” he said.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.