Higher Education Reform

‘Belonging’ on Campus: Three Ways to Make it So

May 9, 2022 6779
Five university students focused on computer screen
(Photo: vicwag/Pixabay)

“Belonging” is trending.

You can see it in evolving executive titles, such as “vice president of global diversity, inclusion and belonging.”

You can find it in reports about how to make employees feel they’re a more essential part of the workplace. For instance, a 2021 report about trends in the workplace found that belonging is a key factor for how companies keep employees engaged. And it can be seen in new “belonging” initiatives and strategies to create an “environment of belonging” and develop more inclusive environments across organizations of all sorts.

But what about on a college campus? Does the recent increased interest in belonging help students? Might it carry unintended consequences?

As a researcher who concentrates on factors that influence belonging among college students, I have decided to probe more deeply into the recent focus on belonging and its relationship to how college students fare. In my research, I define belonging as a concept of people’s connectedness and mattering at the organizations or institutions where they work, study or are otherwise involved.

Will this emphasis on belonging actually enhance students’ well-being and ultimately help them succeed? Or is it just being used as a feel-good buzzword that is meant to appease recent demands for greater inclusion?

The Conversation logo
This article by Michelle Samura originally appeared on The Conversation, a Social Science Space partner site, under the title “3 ways to make ‘belonging’ more than a buzzword in higher ed”

A crucial need

There’s no shortage of research that has identified belonging as a critical need for human beings, especially for college students.

Studies have found that belonging is a key to college student success. Belonging is associated with students not dropping out of school, psychologically adjusting to college, and academic achievement. Belonging is especially important for students of color who attend institutions that were not designed with them in mind.

While most research about belonging on campus has focused on how students interact with other people, my own research has examined how campus spaces – such as residence halls and classrooms – can enhance student belonging. I’ve found that the design of campus spaces can increase the frequency of interactions among students. If those interactions are positive, they can then lead to belonging. I’ve also found that where students go on campus – or don’t go, for that matter – says a lot about when and with whom they experience belonging.

I don’t question that belonging on campus is an important consideration. Rather, I’m suggesting that people question generally accepted ways of talking about belonging. Here are three alternative ways to think about the matter.

1. Belonging is an ongoing process

Phrases such as “sense of belonging” are commonly used in discussions about belonging. This language suggests that belonging is a feeling or a state of being, but it’s actually more than that.

Even how belonging is measured can perpetuate a view that one’s belonging remains constant and consistent, overlooking the fact that “belonging” can actually fluctuate over time. Belonging among college students often is measured through surveys, but surveys are only snapshots.

Beyond shifts in belonging at different times, students may also experience belonging differently in different places and with different people. For example, I found that students at one university identified the dining hall as a key site to connect with their friends. It was a space that represented their belonging. However, for other students, the same dining hall was a stressful place. For these students, it was a space that made them feel isolated.

Instead of viewing belonging as a feeling or a sense, consider how belonging is an ongoing process. In my 2016 study of college student belonging, I found that when students’ expectations for their academic and social lives did not match what they encountered during college, they indicated lower belonging academically and socially. To change that, students would seek out different places on campus and rethink their own views of themselves. They would also form new student groups and seek places on campus for those groups and people with similar interests to meet.

The takeaway is that even if someone doesn’t belong at first, it doesn’t mean they won’t belong in the future.

2. Belonging takes effort

When belonging is seen as fitting in, it’s easy for people to assume that individuals can fit or even want to fit. It’s also easy to make assumptions about who belongs where or with whom. This view can lead to expectations about what conditions promote belonging, such as being around people who are alike.

However, being around people who are seen as being alike isn’t always associated with belonging.

In a study on belonging at a multicampus university system, I found that Asian American students at a university where they were relatively few in number reported higher levels of belonging than did Asian American students at campuses with much larger Asian American student populations. Findings indicated that student belonging may not require being around people from the same racial or ethnic group. Belonging can occur among difference. So it’s useful for colleges to question people’s thinking about who belongs with whom.

The study’s findings also revealed that Asian American students actively sought out spaces and groups with whom they shared similar interests or felt like they could relate, such as a speech and debate club, cultural organizations, and the recreation center for pickup basketball.

In these cases, belonging didn’t just occur by itself. Students had to deliberately seek it out.

3. Belonging is a shared responsibility

People may view belonging as a personal matter – something experienced at an individual level that is an individual’s responsibility. But it also requires ongoing effort by organizations and institutions.

Colleges and universities can change their structures and systems to support belonging and inclusion. This can include giving attention to differences between what colleges display in marketing materials and the reality of what students experience on campus.

In my experience, belonging is often thought of as condition that does not change and depends on the actions of an individual student. What I’ve found through my research, however, is belonging on campus takes ongoing effort – not only by students, but the colleges they attend as well. By thinking about belonging in these different ways, the kinds of change needed for greater student belonging may actually happen.

Michelle Samura is associate professor and associate dean for undergraduate education and external affairs in the Attallah College of Educational Studies at Chapman University. She also is the founding co-director of the Collaborate Initiative and principal investigator of the Architecture of Belonging project.

View all posts by Michelle Samura

Related Articles

AI Upskilling Can and Should Empower Business School Faculty
Higher Education Reform
July 10, 2024

AI Upskilling Can and Should Empower Business School Faculty

Read Now
Reflections of a Former Student Body President: ‘Student Government is a Thankless Job’
Insights
July 1, 2024

Reflections of a Former Student Body President: ‘Student Government is a Thankless Job’

Read Now
Universities Should Reimagine Governance Along Co-Operative Lines
Higher Education Reform
May 20, 2024

Universities Should Reimagine Governance Along Co-Operative Lines

Read Now
Striving for Linguistic Diversity in Scientific Research
Communication
May 1, 2024

Striving for Linguistic Diversity in Scientific Research

Read Now
The Power of Fuzzy Expectations: Enhancing Equity in Australian Higher Education

The Power of Fuzzy Expectations: Enhancing Equity in Australian Higher Education

Having experienced firsthand the transformational power of education, the authors wanted to shed light on the contemporary challenges faced by regional and remote university students.

Read Now
Using Translational Research as a Model for Long-Term Impact

Using Translational Research as a Model for Long-Term Impact

Drawing on the findings of a workshop on making translational research design principles the norm for European research, Gabi Lombardo, Jonathan Deer, Anne-Charlotte Fauvel, Vicky Gardner and Lan Murdock discuss the characteristics of translational research, ways of supporting cross disciplinary collaboration, and the challenges and opportunities of adopting translational principles in the social sciences and humanities.

Read Now
Addressing the United Kingdom’s Lack of Black Scholars

Addressing the United Kingdom’s Lack of Black Scholars

In the UK, out of 164 university vice-chancellors, only two are Black. Professor David Mba was recently appointed as the first Black vice-chancellor […]

Read Now
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ramdhan Hakiki

Thank you for nice information 
Visit Mywebsite
https://uhamka.ac.id/