Professor Adapts New UVA Initiative Aimed at Creating Belonging During Pandemic

Audrey Breen

Karen Inkelas and colleagues created The Groves concept as a way to both increase student residents’ engagement and foster a stronger sense of belonging.

The University of Virginia is home to three residential colleges, unique living and learning communities where students live in close proximity and connect through a variety of residentially based activities. Hereford College is one of those residential colleges, where higher education professor Karen Inkelas serves as the faculty principal and where she and her colleagues adapted a newly launched program in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inkelas, associate professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, along with Caren Freeman, Hereford’s director of studies, and Aida Barnes-May, Hereford’s program coordinator, created The Groves concept as a way to both increase student residents’ engagement with Hereford College’s activities and foster a stronger sense of belonging. Hereford divided its two residence halls by floor into “Groves,” each named after a different local tree variety: Magnolia, Redbud, Pine, Sugar Maple, Beech, Dogwood, Sycamore, and Tulip Poplar. The concept provided opportunities for students to engage in a variety of activities by Grove during the course of the year.

“Research on the undergraduate experience shows that engagement in social activities and a sense of belonging in a community are two key predictors to retention and academic success,” Inkelas said. “We hope that The Groves will facilitate both engagement and sense of belonging.”

In ordinary years, 200 students live in Hereford College, where life is centered around wellbeing through the three foci of mindfulness, social awareness and sustainability. According to Inkelas, even within a community of 200, it can be challenging and intimidating, especially for new first-year and transfer students, to meet new people and make friends. The Groves, an attempt to create smaller communities of approximately 20-25 students, was a way to make sure that all of its residents feel welcomed and supported.

“It might be challenging to create a sense of community among 200 students (or even 16,000 undergraduates!), but surely we can get to know our 20-25 nearest neighbors,” Inkelas said.

Noting the research on the impact of a sense of belonging on students’ college experiences, Inkelas hoped that if students have friends in their Grove living on their floor, they may be more likely to participate in broader Hereford and UVA social activities because they will have friends to go along with them.

“Indeed, perhaps a Grove mate could nudge a shy peer to come along and join an activity who wouldn’t have gone otherwise,” Inkelas said. “And, with a strong sense of community or belonging in their Grove, students will feel more supported and subsequently thrive in other aspects of college, thereby increasing retention and academic achievement.”

Adapting the Groves During the Pandemic

The Groves was initially launched during the 2019-2020 academic year but was cut short when students suddenly returned home for spring break in March. Inkelas knew that the need for the Groves concept became even more crucial for the 2020-2021 academic year, especially for incoming first-year and transfer students.

“Imagine arriving on Grounds for your first semester at UVA, but a good portion of the student enrollment is staying at home, most or all of your classes are online, and you can’t gather in groups of more than 5-10 (depending upon the ever-changing rules),” Inkelas said. “Basic things like eating in the dining hall or using the hall bathroom are considered risky, and you can’t even see people’s faces because everyone needs to wear a mask when in public. Now, imagine trying to make friends or even make a social connection under these conditions.”

This fall semester, the Groves provided opportunities for the first-year and transfer students to get to know others on their floors. Inkelas, Freeman, and Barnes-May also launched a new, one-credit course, “Residential Roots,” that offered first-year and transfer students activities designed to both help them cope with their new reality and explore some deeper conversations with their Groves.

The Groves concept was also extended to Hereford students who were living at home.

“Those first-year and transfer students enrolled in Residential Roots but attending from home were also assigned to a Grove, so they would also be able to bond with a group of other first-year and transfer Herefordians,” Inkelas said. “For some of these students attending from home, their Grove mates might be the only students they got to meet outside of a little box on a Zoom screen.”

According to Inkelas, there has been a lot of coverage of the mental health of college students, particularly in terms of the isolation and loneliness they are feeling in a COVID college environment.

“We hoped that the Groves and the Residential Roots course played a part in making the fall semester a little more hospitable for our first-year and transfer students,” Inkelas said.

Measuring the Impact & Looking Forward

To measure the impact of the concept and course, Inkelas conducted an assessment of the students enrolled in the Residential Roots class, as well as all other students who are part of the Hereford community. The respondents were divided into three groups: students in the Residential Roots course, students who were living in Hereford for the first time but not enrolled in the course, and students who had lived at Hereford for at least one year prior to Fall 2020.

Inkelas and her team found that students who took the Residential Roots course were significantly more likely to intend to engage with other Hereford programs and activities than the students living in Hereford for the first time who didn’t take the course. Residential Roots students were also significantly more likely to be knowledgeable about residential college history and tradition and have a solid understanding of Hereford’s three foci of mindfulness, social awareness and sustainability than the other two groups of students.

The students who lived in Hereford in previous years were more likely to express a stronger sense of belonging to Hereford than the students in the Residential Roots course. However, the Residential Roots students were more likely to express a stronger sense of belonging than the students living in Hereford for the first time not enrolled in the course.

“While at first blush we were disappointed in this finding, we realized that this makes sense,” Inkelas shared. “Of course students who voluntarily elected to return to Hereford for another year would have a strong sense of belonging. So, all in all, we were very pleased with the assessment findings.”

While the students’ responses appear to reflect the positive impact of the course, Inkelas identified areas where they have more work to do. There were no significant differences among the student groups regarding things like attention, stress, or resilience. Those are some of the components they will work on for next year.

For Inkelas, the pandemic has forced those working directly with undergraduates to focus on meeting students’ basic needs.

“While we may have focused on splashy programs in the past, this semester, what students needed most were those aspects that are the most basic in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, like a safe place to live, sleep, and eat, a place where they felt that they mattered, someone who could help them navigate the university, even just a kind word or a periodic check-in,” Inkelas said.

Residential colleges have the capacity to fulfill these needs because they provide a smaller, more intimate community within the large university. Through the Residential Roots course and the Groves, Inkelas and her team made an explicit attempt to help students feel more connected and supported, despite the constraints of the necessary but restrictive COVID-19 policies.

While Inkelas says planning for the immediate future sometimes feels like a “fool’s errand,” her hope is that Hereford can continue to be a safe place for students to thrive, despite all that is happening around them.

For post-pandemic life, she like to continue to try to enhance students’ engagement and sense of belonging by continuing to tinker with the Residential Roots course and the Groves concept.

“I’d also like to partner more with other student communities like the other two residential colleges and the Echols Scholars Program because I feel that, together, we can offer so much more than we can do individually,” Inkelas said.

Most of all, Inkelas would like for more people to discover the hidden gem that is Hereford. For her, it is one of the most special places on Grounds.