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

Recognizing that not all students experience Georgetown in the same way, The Hub for Equity and Innovation in Higher Education recently set out to study attitudes of belonging among first-generation undergraduate students on campus—insights that will help shape the university’s ongoing work in the equity space.

“Georgetown knows that the diversity and inclusivity of our community is one of our greatest strengths—and this survey highlights real places of opportunity for the university to build a community in which everyone feels they belong,” says Heidi Elmendorf, Ph.D., study co-author and director of The Hub.

For the survey, conducted in partnership with the Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP) and the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (CMEA), researchers asked student participants to describe “a meaningful time you felt a part of or not a part of Georgetown” and complete a series of follow-up questions.

More than 80 students—a relatively small but representative sample of first-generation students—took the time to provide detailed input. The responses shed light on the various academic, financial, social, and structural factors that enhance or compromise students’ experiences.

Why is belonging so important to the student experience?

Belonging—defined as feeling included or connected within a community, specifically one that encourages academic excellence, growth, and service—is central to student well-being, success, and persistence. “A number of recent initiatives to create more equitable opportunities across higher education have focused on access, and while that’s a necessary first step, it isn’t enough,” says Molly Morrison, study co-author and The Hub’s associate director of community engagement. 

First-generation, low-income, and other underrepresented minority students who attend colleges where few peers and faculty understand their cultural backgrounds may not feel the supportive, affirming sense of belonging that is so crucial to success in college. 

Anthony A. Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard University, recently highlighted this in his book The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Poor Students. He calls on institutions to think more critically about the “stress and isolation that can define everyday college life for the most vulnerable students.” 

Related: Access is just the beginning: In Georgetown visit, author Anthony Jack shares challenges that less-privileged students face at elite universities >

“We know that a negative campus climate can challenge students’ sense of belonging, and we have a responsibility to make sure that every student feels connected during their time at Georgetown,” says Toddchelle Young, study co-author and director of research at The Hub. 

5 key findings—and opportunities for action 

Collected between February and April 2019, the survey responses indicate that support from communities on campus, including GSP and the Community Scholars Program, and positive interactions with faculty and staff can foster feelings of belonging among first-generation undergraduate students. Yet, too often, interactions with faculty, staff, and peers who do not identify as first-generation and/or low-income serve as sources of alienation.

Asked about the frequency of these negative experiences, participants indicated that their micro narratives were more than one-off events: they were often systemic. In a forthcoming white paper, the study team highlights five significant findings and attendant opportunities:

  1. Early experiences have a long-term impact on students’ sense of belonging. There was a relatively equal number of survey participants from each of the four classes; yet, more than 80 percent of all experiences shared took place during students’ first and second years.

    The finding, researchers say, should fuel efforts to establish a campus culture that is demonstrably welcoming of diversity and the perspectives that it brings from a student’s first encounters with Georgetown. Georgetown’s New Student Orientation is a prime opportunity, as is Georgetown’s “Mastering the Hidden Curriculum” course, which equips students with the skills and cultural capital to navigate their first year.

  2. Students’ sense of belonging is often shaped in social settings and peer groups. More than half of all stories shared in the survey involved peer groups—instances of support from other first-generation and/or low-income students, some challenging interactions on campus, and feelings of isolation from Georgetown peers who don’t identify as first-generation and/or low-income.

    These findings “speak to the importance of ensuring that Georgetown’s equity efforts reach all students,” the researchers say, adding that it is unrealistic to expect that students who come to Georgetown with little lived experience with diversity will be adept at navigating its challenges and reaping its rewards without education. It will be similarly crucial to support environments that foster social interactions among students with shared identities.

  3. Faculty and classrooms impact sense of belonging. Faculty play a significant role in students’ perceptions of their place at Georgetown and their ability to flourish in our intellectual community, the survey revealed. Many stories of displacement had less to do with the course material and more to do with the classroom environment—for example, isolation as the only minority student or a sense that professors didn’t understand their cultural backgrounds. Other stories showed the positive impact when instructors, faculty, and staff used inclusive pedagogies.

    Georgetown, the researchers say, can act on these findings in part by diversifying its faculty and by training faculty and staff on creating inclusive learning environments and mentoring students from diverse backgrounds.

  4. Supporting diversity will require nuanced solutions. The survey responses offer a reminder that individuals who identify with “non-dominant social identities (i.e., non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-Christian)” experience important if subtle differences in their lived experiences of belonging. As such, efforts to improve Georgetown’s campus climate must avoid treating first-generation student identities and experiences as monolithic.

  5. Engaging families in campus experiences can be challenging. Many survey participants reported feeling reticent to turn to their families for support, feeling that they wouldn’t understand or would be unnecessarily burdened.

    Georgetown, the researchers say, should recognize that first-generation, and other underrepresented students, often find themselves “living in two worlds at once as they attend an elite, predominantly white institution.” The university can help bridge the gap between parents and students’ lived experience on campus in part by diversifying its communications with families and developing in-person events that welcome a greater breadth of families into our community.

Overall, the researchers write, the survey of first-generation students “confirms the importance of inclusive, thoughtful, and considerate language in speech during all levels of interaction–and the profoundly harmful consequences when civility fails.” It also “highlights real success stories from across all aspects of our community in celebrating and supporting diversity.”

What’s next?

“To genuinely take a whole-institution approach to student equity and inclusion on campus, we need to recognize where we are supporting belonging in isolated places in the fabric of the university—and ask ourselves how we can reweave the fabric of the institution to build a stronger, more inclusive campus overall,” says Elmendorf, who also serves as senior advisor for equity in education to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. 

Related: What does the future of equitable higher education look like? 18 schools come to Georgetown to develop answers. >

To that end, the researchers say they hope that the findings will not only help establish a baseline for routinely monitoring Georgetown’s climate but also help focus the university’s efforts. The university this week launched a comprehensive cultural climate survey open to all students on the Main, Medical Center, and Georgetown Law campuses, hoping to gain further insight into students’ perceptions of their environments on campus.

“We want our results to reflect the diversity and breadth of students and student experiences at Georgetown,” says Rosemary Kilkenny (L’87), vice president, diversity, equity, inclusion and chief diversity officer. “All students’ voices are most welcomed because of their contribution to the campus climate and environment.”

OSEI leading Georgetown’s institution-wide approach

Georgetown’s Office of Student Equity and Inclusion (OSEI) is playing a central role in the effort to support the experiences of students who have been underrepresented in our community and to educate members of the Georgetown community in how to welcome diversity and reap the deepest benefits from living and learning in a diverse community. Led by Adanna J. Johnson, Ph.D., associate vice president for student equity and inclusion, OSEI integrates GSP and the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access (including CSP) under one umbrella.

Johnson’s office also is convening a council of faculty, staff, and other university stakeholders to ensure that Georgetown’s equity, diversity, and inclusion goals are intuitive and organic. In working with the council, units across campus develop their own visions for the work—which are in alignment with the university’s mission—and a sense of shared responsibility.

Read a Q&A with Adanna Johnson on Georgetown’s whole-institution approach to equity and inclusion >

“We need to ensure that Georgetown’s approach is truly integrated across the campus, because it is central to the success of all students and is clear in our Jesuit mission and values,” Johnson says. “We must place this value at the center of all departments and schools, as well as units, and not treat it as an add-on.”

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