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In their own words–The SYE Program at Morgan State University

By Dr. Brenda J. James
Morgan State University

In launching a Second-Year Experience program at Morgan State University this year, we ran headlong into a tough obstacle: ‘sophomore slump.’ But with help from the students themselves, we worked through that challenge and many others. Students are participating, exploring new fields, and finding themselves.

The Second Year Experience (SYE) is designed to engage all students returning to Morgan State for their second year in out-of-classroom, experiential learning opportunities, with the goal of enhancing career readiness skills. By learning through internships, job shadowing, campus-to-career field trips, and study abroad, students will achieve the “soft skills” that today's employers require. These include communication, self-motivation, leadership, responsibility, teamwork, problem-solving and critical thinking, flexibility, negotiation and conflict, and time management.

We’re just getting started at this. And though we are far from reaching our goal of 100 percent (we’re at 10 percent now) we are making good progress and helping our students succeed. Here is how we are doing it:

The goal

My office, the Center for Academic Success and Achievement, was primarily responsible for designing the program with funding support from Lumina Foundation. Participation is not a requirement—but it is strongly encouraged. As we started planning, we identified some opportunities for students, including study abroad, internships, research with faculty, and service-learning courses.

The roadblocks

We’ve all heard the term ‘sophomore slump,’ a time when second-year students feel lost, unmotivated and confused, or undecided about their majors. I was concerned that this might affect participation in our new program, especially since many of the opportunities offer no class credit. But we did offer incentives to students for completing each part of their Experiential Learning Plan (ELP), such as a T-shirt designed by one of the second-year students, SYE wristbands, earbud cases and card holders for students’ cell phones. To our dismay, the incentives didn’t work as well as we hoped. How do we engage 100 percent, or even 50 percent of these students?

The step we took

First, our team felt we needed to expand our choices of experiential learning opportunities that would address some of the needs associated with second-year students. To leverage what students were already doing, we added work-study, part-time jobs off and on campus, and volunteering/community service. We also offered ‘campus-to-career’ field trips. We’ve learned that these field trips are meeting many of our students’ needs and providing direction as they embark on their journeys of self-discovery.

How students led the way

We also learned a lot through focus groups with students. They told us that there should be repercussions for non-participation or that we should make participation a graduation requirement. They also suggested hosting social events, developing an “upbeat” video as a marketing tool, creating a role for SYE ambassadors for each school/college, and having someone “walk them through the ELP process.” Students also suggested that field trips be advertised according to majors. They also suggested that we send out a survey for even more feedback.

The students’ responses were thoughtful and critical to the success of our SYE program. And though I had hoped to see greater participation this year, students still have the rest of the semester and summer of 2019 to engage in experiential opportunities. This is a work in progress, and, with the guidance of our students, I’m confident that we will reach our goals and help them reach theirs.

Positive feedback

I’m pleased to conclude on a good note. Our students shared these insights on what they’ve learned and experienced in the new program.

Reginald F., Lewis Museum trip

This trip helped me because I am not very active on campus. This is basically the first thing I have done dealing with Morgan that wasn’t homecoming. I believe it sort of brought me a little closer to my class. I used my listening and learning skills, and many of the things I heard today I never knew of…it was really nice to learn more about the history of where I am from.

This Second Year Experience has given me some more knowledge, and the field trip has broadened my knowledge on my background as a young black college student at an HBCU. It is important to know where I came from. This motivated me to continue to pursue my degree at Morgan State University and take advantage of the opportunities I am given. Having learned more about African Americans in Baltimore and the state of Maryland, in general, I have a better sense of self.

PEARL (Patuxent Educational Aquatic Research Laboratory)

This trip has broadened my spectrum of what I can do with my future degree. It has excited me and made me want to dip my hands into a lot of different things outside of my comfort zone. I also ate a raw oyster—which wasn’t that bad! This experience has made me excited to be a Morgan student and I’m happy I’ve signed up for this trip.


It opened my eyes to a new field, and I gained a new respect for people in news. It made me realize that since I am a communications major, I have to use communication a lot more.

My first year made me decide if college really was what I wanted. I had no problem waking up for class or going because I enjoyed it. Now in my second year I know I want to finish this journey.

Volunteer/Community Service

The Experiential Learning Opportunity has allowed me to broaden my network by enabling me to develop communication skills through active interaction with people I tutor. As a result, my ability to meet and relate with people from diverse backgrounds has greatly improved.

It has enhanced my second year by allowing me to open up, step out of my comfort zone and do things I would never do last year. I use my talents to brand myself and my organization.

My experiential learning opportunity has helped me reach out to others, and I’m more responsible now with my time and project management. I also work with my classmates more to get assignments done on time and efficiently.

Research with Faculty

My experiential learning has helped me see that a balance is needed between everything in order to succeed. Also, I am using my love for math to explore careers that I want to have once I get my degree.

Dr. Brenda J. James is director of the Center for Academic Success and Achievement (CASA) at Morgan State University.

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