Q&A: How to Help College Students Feel Like They Belong

Laura Hoxworth

It’s difficult to describe – but when you feel it, you know it. Welcomed, at home, accepted for exactly who you are. You belong.

Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas has built a career out of studying college students. A professor in the Higher Education program at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, Inkelas studies living-learning communities, student belonging and well-being, and how college environments affect students.

My job is to think about the college experience and how to improve it for students,” she said.

In addition to her research and teaching, Inkelas serves as the faculty principal of Hereford Residential College, a living and learning community on Grounds. She also holds an appointment in the UVA Contemplative Sciences Center as Research Director of Undergraduate Initiatives, where she is Co-Principal Investigator of the Student Flourishing Initiative, a collaborative project with Penn State and the University of Wisconsin focusing on creating an undergraduate curriculum on mindfulness and flourishing for first-year students.

Two years after the pandemic began, concerns are growing about unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety among college students. We spoke with Inkelas about how a sense of belonging relates to student well-being and what institutions can do to help students find belonging in college.


Q: How did you first become interested in studying student belonging?

Back in the early 2000s, I began studying living learning communities. I put a couple of questions on a survey asking how much the students in those communities felt they were a part of the university, felt supported by the university, were happy to be there, etc. And it didn't matter what I was studying using that data – it could have been student satisfaction, cognitive development, academic performance, retention, what have you. Every single one of those outcomes was significantly predicted by a sense of belonging.

I thought, that's a super variable. That was my first clue: what is this concept? And why is it so powerful?

Q: What has your research taught you about why a sense of belonging is so powerful?

I used to believe that sense of belonging was shaped by students’ experiences in college – meaning that students participate in the college environment by taking classes, joining clubs, talking to their friends, all those kinds of things. The more students engage with their college environments, the stronger their sense of belonging is to their institution.

But over the years, I've started to realize that maybe a sense of belonging precedes engagement with the college environment. So, students enter college, and perhaps the first thing that they need to feel is that they belong, that there's a place for them here, and other people feel that they matter. And then once they feel that way, then they begin to participate fully with their environments – in their classes, with extra-curricular activities, with peers, etc. Then, subsequently, that engagement with the college environment influences grades, retention, all those other good things.

However, regardless of whether engagement with the college environment influences belonging or if belonging influences engagement with the college environment, belonging is this invisible thing that we now know has enormous consequences for the student experience. At this point, most college campuses acknowledge that belonging is something that they need to be cognizant of and working on improving.

Q: You’re involved with the Student Flourishing Initiative, which focuses on improving students’ well-being more broadly. How does a sense of belonging fit into a student’s overall well-being in college?

Students must have a basic sense of well-being before they can be in a place to develop a sense of belonging and really engage with the environment. Right now, there's an epidemic of stress and anxiety. So, institutions must grapple with how to tamp down the stress and anxiety in order to help students find their place and take advantage of all the opportunities that are available.

The Student Flourishing Initiative focuses on teaching students basic contemplative practices that can improve well-being with the hope that students will adopt these practices in their daily lives. The idea is that, if you go about your day purposefully, and recognizing all the opportunities that are available to you (in the college environment and elsewhere), you will begin to thrive.

One thing I have learned as Principal of Hereford Residential College is that when students see that people like me are helping them to manage their stress and anxiety, they realize that there are people at the university who care about them. Belonging has a precursor, which is mattering. Do students think they matter to the university? At some level, do they feel cared for, supported? That is a large part of belonging.

Q: What common barriers or challenges do students face in finding a sense of belonging in college?

One thing we know for sure is that the students who suffer from a lack of belonging the most are often the most marginalized populations on campus: students of color, first-generation students, low-income students, women in STEM, and others who have been historically excluded.

However, prior research has shown that students don't necessarily have to have a sense of belonging to the university as a whole. In order for students to feel that they belong, they can feel an affiliation with just a sub-part of the university. For example, African American students at UVA might feel a strong kinship and sense of belonging to the Office of African-American Affairs, and that’s enough for them to persist at UVA, even if they don’t necessarily feel as though they belong at the broader university level.

But, it may be difficult for some students to find the place within the university where they belong, especially if it isn’t part of the dominant culture. Students come into contact with the dominant culture every day – it’s around them all the time, 24/7. And, if they do not feel as though they fit in with the dominant culture, they can begin to feel even more isolated and less like they belong. So, the challenge is to help students find where they fit – the place where they belong. Do students know and do they understand that help and resources are available to them to help them find their niche?

Q: What can move the needle on something like a sense of belonging?

Belonging is one of those difficult concepts to really try to address. It's a feeling, a perception. It's an opinion that students have about their college experience. So, it's not like we can just give all students a “sense of belonging” kit, and voila, now they all feel like they belong.

There are two ways to look at it. On one hand, what can the student do to better engage with and better experience college? And, on the other hand, what can the institution do to make it easier for the student to engage in and experience college? Ultimately, whose responsibility is it – the student’s responsibility, or the institution's responsibility? Most of us, including me, believe that it’s a combination of both. It's really a sort of integration of the student and the institution.

Q: So if we look at it from the institution’s perspective, what can institutions do to help students find a sense of belonging?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that every university is different. What works here at UVA may not work at UCLA or Virginia Tech.

That being said, the first year is critical in producing belonging. We know that from the broader research on the first-year experience. There are several ways we can facilitate belonging. It may be a program, a messaging campaign, or early orientation. It may be that, instead of the advisor waiting for students to show up for their appointment, the advisor reaches out to the student and says, “Hey, how's it going? I haven't heard from you in a while.” We have to study our own students and understand how they interact with the environment in order to best know what will be effective in facilitating belonging.

Moreover, as institutions place value on diversity, equity, and inclusion, they need to create multiple sub-environments, or pockets of belonging, so that historically marginalized students can find their niche and cultivate a sense of belonging. These sub-environments could be places like residential learning communities, or OAAA, or the LGBTQ Center.

So the trick for the institution, then, is to think creatively and innovatively to create plenty of varied opportunities and places where students can feel like they belong. But don’t stop there: then, make sure that students get hooked into these things. This may mean that universities should proactively help students find and use those places.

Q: We last spoke with you in 2020, when you were piloting a new initiative to help students find belonging at Hereford Residential College in the early days of the pandemic. How do you think things have changed since then?

The last two years have been just exceedingly rough for students. They're not experiencing anything even close to a typical college experience. And they know it. They’re trying so hard to hold on to some sense of normalcy, but we’ve lost so much of our community.

This is just observational, but what I have seen here at Hereford is when we first hit the pandemic, students were exceedingly patient. At first, they were willing to [do the Zoom programs], because they knew the importance of staying in touch.

But now we’re two years in. This last semester, when we could start having in-person programs again, the students weren’t attending in the same numbers that they did before the pandemic. And I think it’s because they started their college experience in their rooms by themselves. So, it may take a longer time to rebuild a sense of community, especially one that is face-to-face.

Q: Understanding those challenges, what advice would you give to institutions for how to support student belonging in the coming years?

I think we have to retrain ourselves – all of us, me included. We can't just expect students to show up like they did pre-2020. We have to give them reasons why they should show up and be honest with them about why it is important.

Institutions are going to have to keep trying new things and constantly experimenting. If one idea doesn’t work, then what else can we do? Just keep trying. It’s worth the effort because the research has made it clear how important a sense of belonging is.

Q: What advice would you give to students?

There’s a certain mythology about what college is supposed to be like. But there’s plenty of different ways to experience college – so if your experience isn’t like the TV show, that's okay.

Students also have to try lots of things before they may find where they belong. So, if you had a bad experience in that one club that you tried that one time, try a different club. And if that doesn’t work, try another club. It might take a while – it's not something that you can snap your fingers and make happen. But when you find the place where you fit, you'll see you'll feel so much better.

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