3 strategies for increasing college students’ sense of belonging

The last two years have presented a host of challenges to student connectedness. Recognizing that students who feel they belong on campus are more likely to complete their degree, colleges and universities are pursuing new ways to build community. Education firm EAB recently shared three strategies from its conversations with college leaders about their approach to student belonging and resilience.

Hosting structured programs with ‘a DEIJ lens’

Campus leaders told EAB that COVID-19 disruptions have made it difficult for students to find friends—and that structured programming is an important path forward.

Several colleges and universities have planned networking opportunities grounded in diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. At the University of Virginia, the Hoos Connected program facilitates small groups of 8-10 students, encouraging them to make meaningful connections and consider “what brings us together, what can keep us apart, and how these things manifest at UVA.”

Similarly, Columbia University is hosting “Campus Conversations” where students can bond in discussion about inclusivity at the institution. The events are part of the university’s Community Citizenship Initiative, which Columbia established “to create a stronger, safer, and better-connected campus community.”

Related: 5 opportunities to build first-gen students’ sense of belonging at Georgetown >

Personalize student-facing processes

Recognizing that the transactional and administrative side of college life can feel alienating, some schools are simplifying student services to make them more welcoming and personal.

EAB highlights American University’s effort to integrate its student services and achieve an inclusive student experience. To better understand the student perspective, the university’s Reinventing the Student Experience (RiSE) initiative held focus groups, asked students to journal about their experiences, and shadowed other complex organizations.

The university used the takeaways to develop four student “personas”—for instance, first-year students, or financially focused students—to keep in mind as it pursues new models for delivering student services. According to the university, administrators “will know that RiSE has succeeded when AU faculty and staff see themselves as a single, multi-faceted community, wholeheartedly dedicated to helping our students thrive.”

Related: What if all community colleges took Perimeter’s approach to student belonging? >

Reduce stigma associated with mental health challenges

Finally, EAB highlights efforts to ensure students are comfortable talking about their mental health, have opportunities to build cognitive behavior skills, and know how to seek help. At the University of Washington, for instance, a six-week program called Be REAL (REsilient Attitudes and Living) is helping students cope with challenges through small-group sessions and self-reflection.

In testimonials on the Be REAL website, program participants commented that “connecting with other students made me feel much less self-conscious about my own efforts” and that the contemplative skills taught by the program were valuable when they “began to feel like UW wasn’t where I belonged.”


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