In recent years, the addition of belonging to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEIB) was an acknowledgment that mere representation in a space is not enough. Just because we are present and included in a space does not mean we belong or feel like we belong. While inclusion and belonging are not the same, they are connected. Belonging, which is something that people feel, hinges on inclusion. If we don’t feel included, it is unlikely that we will feel like we belong. Belonging is a basic need of humans, and humans are relational creatures. The feeling of belonging is linked to feeling accepted and valued as a member of a group of people and experiencing a sense of connection to a space. Belonging is a key driver of mental health.
The CDC Adolescent Behavior and Experiences Report (ABES) of high school students conducted in 2021 during the pandemic found that compared to white students, students of color were more likely to report mistreatment at school due to their race or ethnicity. Such treatment is not a recipe for a feeling of belonging. A Nielsen survey the Steve Fund partnered on in 2017 found that college students of color were less likely than white students to report that their campus was inclusive (28% vs. 45%) and more likely to report that they often felt isolated on campus (46% vs. 30%). A University of Michigan survey found that one-quarter of students from underrepresented backgrounds reported feeling that they did not belong at their institution, which represented a 66% increase in ten years. There are spaces in which we feel “othered” because we look different or have different backgrounds than the majority of students. The recent Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action related to admissions in higher education has heightened concerns about belonging among students from communities of color on college campuses.
When making the transition from home to college for the first time, achieving a sense of belonging when arriving at college can be challenging. College campuses have not always been welcoming to students of color who have been harassed for mundane acts like sleeping, eating, or studying. In these circumstances, law enforcement was involved, and students were treated as if they were strangers, even though they were registered students. These were potentially dangerous situations in which the students came away with the feeling that they did not belong on that campus. As a result, students of color who have noxious racial experiences on campus personally or learn about them through mass media may develop anxiety, a sense of alienation, marginalization, and social isolation.
Another impact of discriminatory acts and negative racial stereotypes on students of color is impostor phenomenon which describes a pattern of self-doubt, concerns of not measuring up intellectually, and feelings of not belonging in their educational environment. The feeling of non-belonging is closely related to isolation and loneliness. A recent Surgeon General’s Advisory has underscored that loneliness has physical and mental health consequences, including a 50% increase in the risk of depression. This report also stated that reducing isolation and loneliness is a way to address the mental health crisis in the U.S.
Social connection undergirds a sense of belonging which serves as a protective factor to help manage stress and promote mental health. Seeking connectedness with our college community is one way to achieve belonging. On an individual level, as we approach making new friends and establishing relationships in a new place, what we say to ourselves, also known as self-talk, is really important. Employing cognitive behavioral strategies and choosing to replace our self-doubt with kinder and gentler internal language about ourselves can be helpful. We can intentionally and deliberately develop countermeasures to whatever feelings of imposter phenomenon we hold with words of encouragement and positive self-affirmations. Only we can devise the right recipe tailored to our unique needs and emotional make-up in order to achieve our comfort level in a given space. Additional things that we can do to foster a sense of belonging in ourselves are to show empathy and lift up others. We can greet everyone and acknowledge their humanity, treating everyone we encounter with kindness and respect. We can establish a support system comprised of people of goodwill and conscience. We can find our lane and “get in where we fit in”, choosing our tribes whether they are based on our identities, interests, hobbies, talents, sports, or religious and spiritual beliefs. There are so many dimensions upon which to find common ground with others in educational spaces which can serve as a springboard for belonging. Keep in mind that we may find these connections on campus as well as the larger community in which our college or university is located.
While there are many things that we can do for ourselves to increase our sense of belonging, educational institutions need to do their part as well. Colleges can be deliberate about creating an engaging and welcoming environment. In order to establish an atmosphere and culture on campus that is conducive to belonging, it is imperative that leaders, administrators, faculty, and students adhere to standards of mutual respect and value each other’s dignity. Creating an educational space in which belonging flourishes for all students, especially during this time when messages of exclusion abound, is not a spectator sport. We all need to join together and get involved in developing the kind of society and campuses where everyone can thrive!