New book explores who’s responsible for students’ sense of belonging

For new students entering college, finding their way and achieving a sense of belonging can be an arduous process. A new book takes a closer look at who shoulders that responsibility, suggesting ways that colleges and universities can better approach welcoming first-year and first-generation students into the fold. 

Lisa M. Nunn, director of the Center for Educational Excellence at the University of San Diego and a professor of sociology, conducted more than 180 interviews across two college campuses to understand how students “find [their] place” for her new book, College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life. In her research process, Nunn found that higher education places much of the onus to attain belonging on students, and not the established communities within campus life. 

“Yes, we do have to make some effort to join new communities or orgs,” Nunn wrote to Inside Higher Ed. “We can’t just shut ourselves up in our dorm rooms and never talk to anyone. But also, I can’t just walk up to a new group I want to be a part of, knock on the door, and demand belonging. It doesn’t work like that.” 

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Instead, Nunn says, belonging can be achieved only when the group or community grants the incoming student a sense of being “valued and important.” When campus culture calls for new students to “get out there and find your place,” it sets up students to carry the burden of failure if they don’t find a space of belonging in campus life, she says. 

Some students have a leg up in finding their way on campus

Nunn also spoke with students about the distinction among social, campus, and academic belonging, finding that students regard each as separate and independent of one another. Everything from the amenities offered on campus to the events hosted, social climate, and classroom environment can make or break a student’s overall sense of belonging and trigger imposter syndrome

Nunn found that, compared with first-generation, first-year students, and underrepresented students of color, continuing students, specifically those who identify within the racial majority on campus, have a lower hurdle to jump in achieving a sense of belonging on campus. Most students have a transition period, but continuing-generation students feel more confident in their ability to participate in student organizations and clubs, often surrounded by students with similar interests and ideologies. 

Conversely, first-generation students often described feeling “frustrated by the awkwardness and disappointment” in their search for belonging. For students of color from underrepresented communities, the absence of cultural inclusion intensifies feelings of isolation and heightens feelings of irrelevance and invisibility on campus. 

Related: How do first-gen students experience elite higher education? >

“They didn’t see much of their heritage reflected in campus events or curriculum. They didn’t see many of their favorite foods in the campus markets or their favorite music playing in the rec center or their favorite fashions in the bookstore,” Nunn describes. 

Many white students that Nunn interviewed, meanwhile, said they valued ethnoracial diversity on campus but also felt it was up to others to “integrate” into campus life or “coexist.” Some students from the racial majority at the campuses she researched—specifically white and Asian students—also described feeling frustrated when students from underrepresented backgrounds participated in clubs and organizations that centered their ethnoracial identity, considering those clubs to be divisive and exclusionary. 

“So, underrepresented students of color felt—quite accurately—a sense of distrust and a withholding of belonging from ethnoracial majority students around campus,” Nunn writes.

A call for creating a more inclusive campus culture

In College Belonging, Nunn offers several next steps for campuses striving to foster inclusion and belonging.These include abandoning “find your place” messaging and mindsets, investing in support resources and positioning them in prominent locations around campus, and making intentional connections with first-generation students who may not be aware of the many services and opportunities available to them. 

For first-gen students, who Nunn says often resist waving the white flag when in need of help, creating a structure and routine of regular check-ins and “well-timed mentorship” can make a world of difference in their college experience. 

“We need to communicate to students through our everyday interactions that they are important,” Nunn says. “The university exists because students exist.”

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