The huge steps taken in diversity and inclusion over the past few years have helped benefit under-represented students and improve the climate on university campuses globally. Yet a diverse and inclusive campus is not always enough to make all students feel they can flourish and get the best out of their time at university. Sometimes even a university with the best EDI policy can fail to retain students from under-represented groups simply because they do not feel they belong.
The term “belonging” may be less familiar than “equity”, “diversity” and “inclusion”, but it is just as important in terms of accessibility and student success. All four concepts work together to encourage positive student dynamics, academic excellence, creativity and innovation.
Belonging asks: “Does everyone on campus feel valued, connected and able to be their authentic self?” In many ways, belonging is the emotional counterpart to inclusion (“Have everyone’s ideas been heard, respected and understood?”). It is the feeling of having personal involvement in an environment. A sense of belonging is centred on gaining acceptance, being part of something and feeling supported as well as giving support to others.
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Belonging can seem more abstract and difficult to measure than equity (“Who is trying to get on campus but can’t and what barriers do they face?”) or diversity (“Who is on our campus?”) but its presence – or absence – is certainly felt. Like inclusion, a sense of belonging is active and requires reflection. Thriving universities create spaces to foster social connections and communication that in turn nurture creativity, innovation and success.
Students’ reflection: do I belong here?
It’s a simple question, yet how students respond to it is closely linked to whether they will flourish at university. At the University of Luxembourg, we believe that when students feel they belong, it leads to an upward spiral of positive relationships. The more our students feel they belong, and are supported and not alone, the more they can cope with stressful situations. They are more resilient and they cope better with life’s difficulties. Numerous studies show that a greater sense of belonging is positively correlated with learning, academic excellence and student retention. Students who feel a strong sense of belonging are more engaged, more likely to join university student associations, and make better connections with peers and staff.
Although a sense of belonging may feel intangible, when we feel we are in the place we are meant to be, and with people we are meant to be with, it feels good. If students arrive on campus and feel that they do not belong, disengagement, disconnection and discomfort ensue.
Belonging, as demonstrated by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, closely follows basic physiological and safety needs; failure to meet belonging needs is associated with psychopathology. Supporting and encouraging activities and behaviours that foster a sense of community among students as well as a sense of belonging to the university all help reduce mental health difficulties, disengagement, social isolation and loneliness.
It ties in with other EDI work. While a welcoming campus environment is important for all students, it is especially important for students from under-represented groups due to their history of exclusion and discrimination and the natural tendency to question if they are respected, valued and welcome.
How can we foster a sense of belonging?
Creating belongingness is more difficult than is often imagined and requires effort. In a world of increasing diversity, universities need to foster experiences that drive a sense of belonging and inclusiveness for their students. Here are six ideas to consider.
- Mandatory training in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging concepts for all students and staff members demonstrates an institution’s commitment to inclusion and its importance on campus. Training all members of our campus community is a proactive way to challenge ourselves, reflect, unlearn and relearn. Training helps us become more aware of invisible barriers and our own unconscious biases as well as encouraging positive behaviours and attitudes. This awareness leads to behaviour change, which can lead to a more inclusive environment.
- Collaboration among senior management, academic staff, administration and student representatives as well as local and national student bodies helps both domestic and international students create connections quickly and easily with each other, the campus and the local community. Commitment to an inclusion framework, designed and agreed by representatives across the university campus, facilitates system-wide change for overcoming barriers to educational access, participation, learning and academic achievement and ensuring all members of our campus are valued and engaged equally.
- First-year activities or programmes that focus on students getting to know each other and staff members as individuals can help to break down barriers, biases and misconceptions. Cultivating a community within a programme, department and faculty can boost a sense of belonging in students. Rather than networking over drinks, consider other welcome activities, perhaps with an academic focus. This avoids excluding students who do not drink, for example, or have far to travel home. Increasing possibilities for out-of-classroom interactions with teaching staff, such as regular one-to-one meetings, can also help students feel more connected to their programme, teaching staff and university.
- Group programmes focusing on personal, academic and career development; peer and professional mentoring; and local community volunteer work can provide an extra layer of support and sense of belonging to students at the start of and during their studies.
- Teaching key skills such as mindfulness and emotional regulation can support productive, constructive and respectful communication, which in turn facilitates respectful behaviours where students are more likely to listen to, care for and feel connected to each other. Participants can also carry these techniques into their academic, social and professional lives.
- Creating campus-wide initiatives and devoting more resources to student support can help address power imbalances on campus. Spaces for listening to individual stories can amplify the voices of under-represented students and break down stigmas and stereotypes. The Human Library is a wonderful initiative that can be easily implemented in university library spaces. Other examples are themed tea-and-talk events, topic-driven debates, poetry slams and theatre productions.
A university campus has a unique opportunity to provide equitable support and opportunities for all students. Ideally, all students can safely voice opinions, be heard and valued, and feel they truly belong.
To create a welcoming environment, everyone in the institution has to play their part. Building a campus with inclusive values at its core is challenging and requires effort, honesty, creativity and courage. Embracing these values will transform campuses and student outcomes for generations to come.
Joanna West is the inclusion officer and team leader of student services at the University of Luxembourg.
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