“When I first arrived at school as a first-generation college student, I didn’t know anyone on campus except my brother. I didn’t know how to pick the right classes or find the right buildings. I didn’t even bring the right size sheets for my dorm room bed. I didn’t realize those beds were so long. So I was a little overwhelmed and a little isolated”
-Michelle Obama ( 2014 )
As illustrated in the quote above, the transition to college has always been challenging. Making new friends. Enrolling in the right classes. Responding to critical feedback from professors. Perhaps earning the lowest grades of one’s life. And, as with so many things, the COVID-19 pandemic has made what has always been challenging even more difficult. As evidence of this, college students’ anxiety and depression are through the roof. Many feel socially isolated, not just socially distanced.
People have a fundamental human need to belong. Especially during transitions to a new environment like college, people often worry about whether they belong, even in non-pandemic times. With so many classes and social interactions shifted to a staid online setting, which precludes hallway conversations and tacit knowledge transfer, students may now experience more uncertainty about their belonging in a new environment. Concerningly, such worries may also be more salient for racially minoritized students as they carry the burden of discrimination and bias. Furthermore, the psychological burden of negative stereotypes are extremely pernicious and can undermine students’ academic outcomes and well-being.
As Michael Bernstein observes astutely in his post—there is a difficult tradeoff between social distancing and the costs of social isolation during this pandemic. Timothy Worley and Madison Mucci-Ferris, in an insightful article earlier in this series , described how important it is for college students to receive social support from their family—especially during the pandemic. In this article, we turn our focus to students’ relationships with adults on campus and ask: what can higher education institutions, faculty, and staff do to help foster college students’ sense of belonging, which might be even more fragile during these grim times?
Recommendations to maintain and improve students’ sense of belonging
Research (including some of our own ) shows how important students’ sense of belonging is in supporting their academic and social integration , persistence , and success in college as well as their long-term well-being . We offer several recommendations to maintain and improve students’ sense of belong during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
- First, the government and higher education institutions should continue to address financial , academic , and informational barriers that impede students’ access to higher education—all of which have magnified in importance during this pandemic. With some of the most promising programs and state funding on the chopping block , the risk of exacerbating educational disparities is extremely concerning. Institutions must also prioritize helping to ensure students’ basic needs are met . Students can learn at their best only when they are not hungry, homeless, or worried.
- Simultaneously higher education institutions must create a psychological context that helps students feel connected to each other, to faculty and staff, and to the institution. One way to do this is through normalizing that certain kinds of challenges in the transition to college (like those described in the introduction to this article) are common, shared by many students from diverse backgrounds, and likely to abate over time. Such thoughtful outreach seem to be especially powerful for Black, Latinx, Native , and first-generation students .
- Another way is to establish learning communities and engage seriously with culturally-sensitive, advising approaches. What might this look like in the pandemic? Many of the above approaches can be thoughtfully adapted to virtual settings to ensure that this pandemic does not further exacerbate the college persistence and graduation rates.
- Students’ sense of belonging to a major or department must also be explored more closely. For example, a clearer diagnosis of the specific barriers students face in majors such as Economics that have severe under-representation of women and faculty of color, can help inform potential remedies. Race-conscious initiatives to increase representation of students and faculty of color, thoughtful first-year seminars orienting students to the college or department, and intentional diversity and inclusion efforts —all seem to matter. At the same time, colleges must also be mindful of what they should not do to alienate students of color. Indeed, colleges should use a combination of approaches that addresses their specific needs and contexts , as any one approach will almost certainly not work everywhere , for everyone .
Some people may see a tension between addressing structural barriers and implementing strategies that are more psychological in nature. Let us be clear: social psychological interventions, many of which we described above, are not a substitute to those systematic changes that are sorely needed. Indeed, without the fundamentals of the education systems and environments in place, psychological interventions are unlikely to succeed . At the same time, a deeper understanding of the various psychological factors that promote students' success can enhance our outreach efforts now and beyond the pandemic.