How ‘spaces of belonging’ can help first-gen students thrive

Providing a dedicated space on campus where first-generation college students can access resources and build community helps ensure they feel a sense of belonging, higher education leaders tell Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

First-gen students are more likely than their peers to come from low-income households and under-resourced communities, and often have little exposure to or context for the college experience. Without the right supports, that unfamiliarity with higher education’s so-called “hidden curriculum” can hamper students’ success: six years after first enrolling in a higher education institution, 56% of first-generation college students had not earned any postsecondary credential, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

Physical space key to a sense of belonging

One crucial way to show first-generation students that they are valued and supported is to establish an on-campus first-gen student center that provides a variety of student services in one central location. “Those spaces are historically lacking on campuses because campuses were not designed for this demographic,” says Rosa Sheng, vice president; higher education studio leader; and director of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion at the design firm SmithGroup, which works on college campuses.

Beyond offering academic support and community-building opportunities, some centers also provide access to multi-purpose spaces including kitchenettes, eating areas, and quiet spaces. Subtle design choices may also make these “spaces of belonging” even more welcoming, such as including display space where students can share items that reflect their cultural backgrounds.

Centering first-gen students at Georgetown

A portion of the new ground floor of Georgetown’s historic flagship building Healy Hall will be dedicated to the Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP), which provides financial assistance and wraparound services to first-generation and low-income students. The newly renovated space will triple the amount of space dedicated to GSP and include workstations, a kitchen, and phone booths for private calls. GSP students will also have access to other amenities coming soon to Healy Hall, such as a multipurpose room for health and wellness services, a center for Catholic ministry, and a lounge open to all students on campus.

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