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Two college students hugging, smiling at graduation

Creating Authentic Belonging at Your Institution with Dr. Lisa Nunn

4 min read

A majority of higher education institutions tout a certain key message when recruiting prospective students: You belong here.

However, once a student determines where to enroll and begins their first year, the message quickly changes. Freshman get bombarded with prompts to "get out there" by joining clubs, sports teams, study groups, etc., or “find where you fit in.” In reality, they're unsure what interests them and if any of the options will actually work out.

So, how can university staff and faculty foster authentic relationships with their students? How can they increase the sense of belonging on campus, socially, and academically?

Dr. Lisa Nunn, who teaches at the University of San Diego, is a cultural sociologist and an organizations scholar studying students’ experiences, students' identities, and their overall success and wellbeing. Her most recent book, College Belonging, follows first-year college students for two years to see how they navigate their new campus homes and what kinds of obstacles they face in developing a sense of belonging.

She joined For Your Institution Live to share her insight how higher ed professionals can create authentic belonging across their institutions. Watch or listen to the full recording below.

Belonging for First-Generation Students

According to Dr. Nunn, the first sense of belonging can depend on the student themselves.

For continuing gen students, which refers to a student who has had at least one family member attend college, they are usually on the lookout for “where they belong” while touring campuses. On the other hand, first-generation students tend to focus more on financial aid, academic programs, etc., and worry about fitting in their first weeks.

“First-gen students much more often feel like they’re scrambling to try this group, and trying to be friends with these people, and show up for that meeting, or do ‘this,’ and none of it quite feels good, or familiar, or right,” Dr. Nunn says.

This mentality makes many first-gen students, and even some continuing-gen, feel like they don’t fit in, and that it is their fault– that finding where they belong is their job. However, Dr. Nunn says the entire institution is an essential part of creating belonging and it starts with leadership.

“We need the institutional leadership to create programs and offerings for students to find a home on campus. We need that leadership to be continually evaluating, ‘Who are our students? What do they need? What are they telling us that they want?’ and figuring out what the recipe is for this year.

“But belonging also happens in-between people. We need to be made to feel that the people in this group like us, that they want us there. That if we don’t show up to the next meeting or class, they will miss or be worried and wonder how we are,” Dr. Nunn says.

Where Faculty and Staff Can Help

One key time Dr.Nunn recommends higher ed staff and faculty check in with freshmen is during weeks eight, nine, and/or ten in the first semester.

She says that many students feel trapped in friendships made during welcome week, but aren’t sure how to break free and expand. Check-ins from faculty or opportunities built by the institution can be a great way for students to explore new things and meet new people.

Faculty and staff can also offer the belonging to students and model it across campus.

“We– the faculty, the staff, the fellow students, we are the community. And its our job to extend the line, to offer belonging to our fellow students and colleague,” Dr. Nunn says.

She suggests asking questions to learn more about others with different cultural backgrounds, genuinely being interested with all students, modeling the behavior you’d like to see and always staying true to how you treat others.

The Differences Between Campus, Academic, and Social Belonging

Most universities approach feedback from students with surveys, but Dr. Nunn says belonging is best measured when you talk to the students, which can be time-consuming and sometimes costly.

In her research, she focuses on three key areas of belonging–campus, social, and academic. She says students can shine in one area but may lack in another.

“There are students with a 3.85 GPA and feel like they’re failing,” Dr. Nunn says. “Their academic belonging is really fragile, even though if we looked at their GPA we would think ‘no, they’re doing great.' We have to ask them how they feel.”

It’s Never Too Late

While some may think some students are past the point of feeling like they belong, Dr. Nunn says it’s never too late to connect with students.

“I don’t think the clock runs out. Belonging shifts in these areas– it gets bigger, it gets smaller, it shifts around, so there is always an opportunity to make some feel included and at home,” Dr. Nunn says. “It’s not easy, in some situations, but it’s never too late.”

She adds that institutions that don't proactively ensure their students feel they belong will face retention issues with students, faculty, and staff. Without a sense of community, people may not feel the need to invest back into the institution.


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