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The Personal Touch 

Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Christakis with returning sophomores at the Welcome Back Barbecue. (Photos by Mark Schmidt)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Sept. 8, 2016) – What makes sophomores want to return for junior year?

  • The option to find an internship
  • More education abroad
  • Doing research alongside faculty
  • The chance to move to a leadership position in clubs
  • Campus employment
  • A greater sense of community

These are the some of the answers UAlbany students gave to informal focus groups in the spring.

The University at Albany administration took these answers, combined them with what was already working successfully, and created a new initiative called the Second Year Experience.

“It all starts with Welcome Back,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Christakis. “We decided we wanted to welcome back second-year students in a big way. So we designed the Welcome Back Barbecue at Dutch Commons exclusively for the Class of 2019.”

The barbecue was Aug. 31 to roll out the Second Year Experience and introduce sophomores to several programs created especially for them. Christakis said Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Laurie Garafola had a tremendous impact in leading this effort, aided by solid support from her Academic Affairs colleagues.

“We very deliberately last year made the move to house all the sophomores on Colonial and Dutch quads,” said Christakis. This was done so that programs in those two quads are tailored to the needs of second-year students.

“It’s much more focused,” he said.

Sophomore Langie Cadesca likes the changes. "I believe that the sophomore experience programming has allowed this class to know that we are a significant part of this University," said Cadesca. "Sophomore year tends to be the most difficult because there are many life-changing decisions that must be made, such as declaring a major. With the sophomore experience initiatives it goes to show that we have not been forgotten and our second year will be a successful year."

Nationally, giving sophomores more personal attention is known to increase retention. While sometimes easier to accomplish at smaller public and private colleges, the challenge is to replicate that on a large scale at UAlbany.

“First, we asked, ‘What are we doing that is already successful?’ ” said Christakis. Programs that were already popular came to mind, like Student Engagement's Munch with your Major. “And then we thought about how sophomores are on the cusp of declaring a major.” So chatting with key faculty and staff in the major you are considering was extended to all sophomores.

Food for Thought, a collaboration between Student Affairs and Undergraduate Education, is another great way to connect with a faculty member. Sophomores can now take a professor to lunch, to develop a relationship with someone who has a personal interest in their success.

Teaching dining etiquette for business lunches and job interviews was also added. “We were doing pockets to rave reviews,” said Christakis. “Why not try to do this for the entire class?”

Leadership development is another area in which the University is highly rated, training 70 – 80 students a semester.

Director of Career and Professional Development Noah Simon took several dozen freshmen to New York City during last winter's January intersession to meet with alumni executives from different companies.

“So we came up with Sophomores in the City,” said Christakis. “They also see a show, or go sight-seeing and shopping in the city.”

Sophomore to junior year is very telling, said Christakis. Freshman year, students are getting acclimated to university life. Sophomore year, they are are digging in. In many ways, the junior year defines itself.

“They’ve got to be thinking about it now, though, as it takes some planning if you want to do research in a lab,” he added.

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About the University at Albany
A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.