Belonging has become an increasingly popular concept in higher education for understanding the student experience—but it’s really not new. According to University of Luxembourg Student Services Team Leader and Inclusion Officer Joanna West, “belonging is the emotional counterpart to inclusion. It is the feeling of having personal involvement in an environment… [of] being part of something and feeling supported as well as giving support to others.” Until recently though, the emotional and interpersonal elements involved in belonging have made it a difficult concept to study.
Assistant Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the University of Utah Daniel K. Cairo acknowledges that the term can feel abstract. “Belonging can feel really nebulous,” he says, but also notes that the impact it has on campus is profound—and this is why a growing number of universities are eager to target and amplify it.
At some colleges and universities, students feel a stronger sense of belonging and this increases their connection to the school and classroom, strengthens their pride in the campus and even positively affects the likelihood that they will be supportive alumni long after they graduate.
More immediately though, belonging helps students feel safer and more supported on campus and this positively impacts student persistence, graduation and even performance. “Students need to feel seen, affirmed, and deeply cared for,” Cairo says “but that care must then translate into developmental practices if it is going to be truly effective.” In fact, several studies have demonstrated that students who have a stronger sense of belonging tend to finish with their degrees (and have significantly lower dropout rates), report higher satisfaction with their education, and even receive higher grades.
Students who face the most challenges to a strong sense of belonging on campus—including first generation students, underrepresented communities, neurodivergent and disabled students, and international students—may need additional support from their institutions. For many of these students, it may be harder to feel fully at home on campus or in the classroom, and it can be hard to ask for help even when they know they need it. Unfortunately, this can result in feelings of exclusion and failure.
As sociology professor and director of the Center for Educational Excellence at the University of San Diego, Lisa M. Nunn explains, schools need to invest in their students—and reach both out and in if they are going to genuinely support them. She says we must provide them with resources and invite students in, intentionally making space for them to be involved and engaged. But she says “we [also] need to find ways to reach in, to ask how they are doing, to check in on that class they are retaking from last semester, to inquire about how well they are getting along with their roommate.” These practices are vital for understanding the experiences and needs of students, fostering a sense of belonging, and meeting them where they are.
The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Strategic Council has highlighted belonging as a key element of future work at the university—identifying practices that strengthen the sense of belonging students, staff, and faculty feel toward campus as essential to its growth. In the Friday Forums session, “Ensuring Belonging for All,” panelists will discuss the recent research on belonging that has made the concept more visible and tangible, the difficulties that still affect belonging for marginalized communities, and the challenges for faculty and staff. Register and learn more about the event on the Friday Forums website.