Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
There’s clear research evidence that a sense of belonging is important for college students. Feeling connected to their peers and the adults on campus predicts students’ engagement, academic success, and the chances of staying in — and eventually graduating from — college.
Demographic changes have elevated the importance of belonging. Due to a decrease in the college-age population, college enrollment is dropping, making an emphasis on retention vital. High-school graduates are increasingly diverse, and research shows that students who are Indigenous, people of color or from other marginalized groups are least likely to feel they belong on their campus.
Add in post-pandemic side effects, and students’ belonging is now more pertinent than ever. As students return to in-person interactions after pandemic shut-downs, it’s safe to say all of their social skills deteriorated and require restoration. Those who have anxiety about meeting new people (which is most of us) are even more anxious. Indeed, rates of depression and anxiety among adolescents are soaring. A sense of belonging is a well-established protective factor for mental health.
Students who stand at the intersection of all of these challenges require additional support. For a long time, the goal was simply diversity, but with a new generation of students, that can no longer be the North Star. Administrators are in position to truly leverage the benefits of this increased diversity by intentionally creating inclusive systems and spaces that foster and reinforce a student’s sense of belonging. But that requires structural, holistic changes that happen across various campus settings. Faculty, staff and administrators can use these ideas to establish a campuswide culture that nurtures the sense of belonging.
Design your assignments so that students bring their own personal stories to it. In writing assignments, ask students to reflect on what they’re learning and how it shows up in their own lives. In addition to helping to foster a sense of belonging, connecting academic learning with personal experience enhances students’ understanding and retention of academic concepts. (An additional bonus is that connecting academic concepts to real life is hard for ChatGPT to do.)
Structure one-on-one, small group and classwide discussions. By giving students this structure, you provide a scaffold for students to get to know their classmates. Providing a scaffold means you don’t leave belonging to chance, and you’re leveling the playing field for those more introverted. To make these discussions most effective, provide guidance, such as open-ended prompts to discuss, topics to cover, etc. Faculty can access free peer-to-peer guides that help students navigate these discussions (see author bio).
Create programs to cultivate student leaders and peer mentors. A guiding principle for student programming is: How do colleges make sure that every student has at least one meaningful relationship on campus? It’s not logistically feasible for that one relationship to always be with a faculty or staff member, at least not while also protecting staff and faculty well-being and preventing burnout. Peer mentoring programs are effective ways to help students connect. They can create a sense of belonging for both the mentees and the mentors.
Structure opportunities for students to talk about the things that matter to them. Welcome events are a fun way to connect, but many students feel a need to be heard on a deeper level. Facilitate small-group discussions around specific topics. For example, ask students to share what they believe to be the purpose of higher education, or get their reactions to campus news and events. The Better Arguments Project and Braver Angels are both organizations that specialize in hosting and facilitating such events.
Start freshmen out in small classes. The freshman year is a critical time for establishing community, but the traditional introductory-level, lecture-heavy courses don’t provide good opportunities for connecting. Instead, consider forming 20- to 25-student cohorts. This can take place in classes, as part of the first-year experience, or in dorms. The key is that this cohort is structured, facilitated and meets repeatedly.
Ask: Who are we not serving well? Pay attention to who shows up to programming, and see how that matches on to your student demographics. Who is the programming appealing to? Who else needs to be invited to come to the table? Then, engage with community members of those groups to design activities that meet their needs.
It’s vital to provide a sense of belonging
The unique challenges that institutions now face can seem intimidating to address. But if campus leaders summarize these problems into the solo challenge of belonging, it can feel easier to approach. And it will pay dividends in terms of student mental health, success and retention. All it takes are small changes on each campus level, small contributions from staff and faculty, and small moments of intentional decision-making by leaders.
Through intentional design of the everyday processes, administrators can create a clear path to greater student connection and substantial campuswide change.
Mylien Duong is the senior director of research at the Constructive Dialogue Institute, an evidence-based education nonprofit helping higher education students, staff and faculty build mindsets and skills to communicate, collaborate and address conflict across differences. Duong has received over $17 million in grant funding, published over 40 scientific articles and book chapters, and led research to develop social-emotional learning programming for teachers in K-12 schools. The Constructive Dialogue Institute offers free peer-to-peer guides for students.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.