Five Things to Know About Students’ Sense of Belonging: Insights From My Uber Driver’s Daughter

It was Thursday. Light rain drizzling outside, expected high of 73 degrees. I was leaving the Marriott in Champaign, Illinois after keynoting a conference of teacher educators sharing an inspirational message, drawing on insights from my research on students’ sense of belonging. As my Uber driver approached the hotel, I was surprised to see someone in the front passenger seat. Once inside the car, I offered my usual greeting — a polite nod and “headed to the airport please.” The driver smiled, nodded, and introduced his seatmate: “This is my daughter, Victoria; she’s just hanging out with dad today. Hope you don’t mind.” I raised my brows in agreement and turned to face the window, turning up the volume on my iPod so the mellow sounds of John Legend could drown out the engine. Just then, Victoria turned all-the-way around in her seat, holding on to the headrest almost like it was her lectern. I removed one earpod and she started talking quickly. She told me her story and here’s what I learned.

When Victoria was born back in 2000, the world was very different. It was the start of a new century, a sort of clean slate with everything starting back at 00 [zero]. Growing up, she heard tons of stories about how the long-awaited arrival of “Y2K” or Year 2000 brought with it global fears about the end of the world and catastrophic chaos — “that’s what I was born into,” she said. Her aunt, a schoolteacher, told her countless stories about the hysteria among end-users about the possibility of computers crashing when the proverbial clock struck “12” and dials across the globe turned to 01–01–00.

While most people anxiously awaited what Y2K held for them, there were two very proud new parents — Matt (my Uber driver) and Tina (his wife) — in a small rural town in Illinois who sat together in the nearest metropolitan hospital holding their “special package” in their arms. A babygirl named Victoria, born on New Year’s Day 2000. “They’ve told me that I’m special my entire life,” she remarked.

Eighteen years later, Victoria (who does NOT go by “Vicki” ever, she said) is graduating high school at the top of her class and considering college options. Though her relatively small rural high school didn’t offer anymore than a handful of advanced placement (AP) courses, she took almost all of them: AP Calculus, AP US History, and AP Physics. She played the violin in the school’s orchestra but “learned to play guitar too from YouTube,” she confessed laughing. Her musical prowess placed her “first chair” in several regional competitions and Victoria planned to minor in music “no matter what college” she chose to attend.

With long brown hair, big brown eyes, and an incredibly infectious laugh that, in my opinion, had the power to bring warring nations together in unity and haters into the harmony of happiness, Victoria seemed very proud of her high school accomplishments. And for good reason, she had done very well there. Served a few years as an elected leader of student government. Starred as a lead role in the school’s rendition of “Hello Dolly.” Wrote for the school newspaper “for a semester or two,” as best she remembered, and much more.

Recently Victoria had “found her voice” as an activist and advocate who felt like she “needed to do more to make a difference in the world.” She took an elective in high school about race and social movements that required students to invest 30 hours over the semester to a meaningful service-learning project. Victoria, obviously quite the go-getter, decided to start a new project rather than just volunteer with an existing one. She called the new project “Reel Talk about Race,” with a clear play on words replacing “real” with “reel” to reflect the essence of the project. Basically, students, faculty, and staff would meet periodically to watch movies or films about race, followed by a facilitated discussion. Facilitators ranged from school faculty to community leaders, students at a nearby college or even Victoria herself.

She spent over 100 hours ironing out the details of this new venture and had hosted a dozen “Reel Talk” sessions by the time we met that Thursday in her dad’s car, as he Ubered me from my hotel to the airport. “I knew that I had to do something — that I was here for a purpose — and it had to do with race and stuff. Even as a White girl, I can do a lot to push the issue too, ya know.” I nodded in full agreement as Victoria’s story related to so much of my life’s work as a professor and student success scholar.

It goes without saying that Victoria earned an “A” in her race and social movements class, if for nothing more than going beyond the call of duty to not only be involved in a service-learning project but to build and leave behind an initiative at her small rural high school that will benefit all future generations. “But now that I’ve done that, I can’t stop and that’s what I’m really looking for in a college…a place where I can meet other people like me,” she explained.

I glance at my watch — though mesmerized by her compelling story and its links to my scholarship — I had no intention of missing my flight or my connectiong through O’Hare International Airport, which is a blog unto itself (laughing, but serious). With about an hour to spare, I regained assurance about my travel plans so I ask: What colleges are you looking at, Victoria? It’s then that I notice her t-shirt that reads: “Where was #AllLivesMatter prior to 1968?” I smiled. Actually, I smiled really, really BIG and give silent “air snaps” to Victoria for her courageous fashion sense.

She said, “Well I’ve been a lot of places but I’m not considering all of them.” Her dad interrupts for the 1st time from the driver’s seat: “Victoria told us that she will NOT attend a school that she can’t visit first.” Almost in volley form, she takes over the conversation again with: “I did. I did say that. But I just think that’s important. I’ve gotta [sic] go visit the school. Check them out. See how it feels to be there. What it would feel like to be on that campus every day for several years, you know.” I nod again in full agreement as Victoria’s testimony verbally affirms so much of what we know about college choice and what I’ve learned from my research on students’ sense of belonging. The conversation continued.

Matt: “It’s been really interesting to watch too. We’ve taken her to some really top-notch schools. Places like Cornell. Davidson. Virginia. And Penn State. And Vanderbilt. Her mom went to Vanderbilt. Where else did we go, Tori?”

Tori: “I shouldn’t go to a school just because you all went there, Dad. It’s got to fit for me. We’re different people and got different needs. [Strayhorn’s Mind: “What?!! Love her!! OMG?”] We went to those places and a few other schools like SIU [Southern Illinois University, Carbondale], Central State in Ohio, and yeah.”

Me: “So what did you think of the schools? I went to UVA — love that place!”

Tori: “All depends. I love the food at UVA. I’m a big foodie. So I pay close attention to food (laughing). It’s a big part of my life and I figured if they give me good food during a campus visit, then I’ll probably have good food as a student. Food matters.

I loved the sense of community and school pride at Central State. Just walking around, you could tell that you become part of something bigger than yourself. I’ve been to SIU a few times — I mean, it’s nice that it is closer to home, but it’s time for these two to get out there on their own without me (patting her dad, Matt, on the shoulders). I’ve got to let go and let them grow up (laughing hysterically).

I definitely did NOT like [name protected]. My dad loved it (Matt nods violently). I hated it. It was stuffy. People seemed cold and way too formal. Everyone wanted to talk about the school and its rankings and blah blah blah, but they never really asked me any questions…nothing about me or my family. All the conversations seemed rushed — short and straight to the point. That’s a no for me. Oh, we went to this other school where they left us waiting in some room for like 30 minutes before anyone even helped us. I was like, “Ok, they definitely don’t give a sh*t about me here…so we left.”

I really liked this other school, [name protected]. They had printed name tags for all of us and this cool ‘choose your own adventure’ which made like every campus visit kind of different and special. I got to eat in the dining hall. I got to go inside one of the dorms. I could really see myself there. I met this woman — she’s like a counselor there who was so nice. She said she was proud of me and I was like ‘Wow, nobody’s ever said that to me before.’ It was all good until I told people that I was thinking about majoring in Black Studies or Black Political Thought as a White ‘woke’ woman (laughing). They’d ask: ‘Really, why?!’ That’s clearly problematic and probably a pretty good sign that someone like me doesn’t belong there. You know? Does that make any sense?!”

Me: (I almost died at the mention of belonging.) “Yes indeed, Tori. It makes a lot of sense. Belonging really matters.”

Long story short, I missed my flight that day and, fortunately, got rebooked on a later flight to my next destination. I wasn’t even mad. I was actually glad, enlightened even. My long, long ride from the hotel to the airport had actually led me to several powerfully provocative moments where I sat under the tutelage of my newest teacher: Victoria, a graduating senior from a rural high school in small town USA. Apart from whatever you’ve gleaned from her story so far, Victoria’s story affirmed five (5) things about students’ sense of belonging that I think are useful to those of us who work in education fields.

  1. Sense of belonging matters and it is sufficient to drive human behavior. I made this point in my 2012 book on the topic, College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students. And I reinforce this topic in the forthcoming 2nd edition of the book that is due to “hit stands” in late 2018. Sense of belonging is a basic human need, as fundamental as air, water, shelter, sleep, and food (which is clearly important to Victoria and other students like her). In an era where 1 out of 5 college students are hungry and 1 out of 10 are homeless, it is increasingly important for educators and campus/school leaders to think about ways to meet students most basic needs. Efforts to remove food insecurities (e.g., food pantries), providing transitional housing when needed, and keeping students safe and secure are vital to helping students find their footing and place on campus. Belonging matters to students — especially students in transition like Tori who are searching for a college. Belonging is a motive and causes people to do things like visit campuses, change their hair color, join clubs, even make new friends or maintain old ones.
  2. Sense of belonging is vital to our existence and optimal human functioning; thus, we constantly monitor for social cues that signal our belonging status. Sense of belonging is vital to human existence — we’re wired as social beings to care about connections, community, and belonging. So much so that a good deal of time is directed toward assessing our belonging status in any setting and we do this both consciously and subconsciously. Where am I? Who’s like me? Am I the only? Will people like me? Will I make friends? Am I valued here? Why are they looking at me like that? Should I be here? These are the belonging questions that preoccupy our minds, especially in new or unfamiliar settings. We help students succeed when we reduce this noise by affirming that they matter, they have what it takes to excel, and they belong. Signs and websites that read “You Belong Here” work well, especially when matched with welcoming campus and classroom environments. Intentionally diversifying the gender and racial composition of faculty/students, as well as representation in videos, websites, and curriculum has shown to nurture interest, reduce stereotype threat, and boost students’ sense of belonging. It’s also true that sense of belonging shapes the interpretive lens or aperture that people use to make meaning of moments, encounters or experiences. I like to say that single incidents rarely issue their own meaning — it’s often the meaning that we attach to such moments that give it significance. Remember how Victoria felt ignored when left waiting in the lobby or “special” when a campus had prepared, printed name badges for students.
  3. Social support is a necessary, but insufficient condition for students’ sense of belonging. Research has shown, time and time again, that social support is related to sense of belonging but it’s insufficient on its own. Focusing on social support alone won’t raise human functioning or produce optimal student performance. Mere presence of friendly staff, supportive faculty, or friends do little to build belonging or foster success. It’s when social support helps the individual feel cared about, thought of, or like they belong that real magic happens. What we’re trying to create as educators are high touch, high contact learning environments — whether classroom, club, college, or department — where students feel supported, special, cared about, and no one feels left behind. Thinking back to Victoria, she felt like she mattered when campus staff took time to get to know her. Students want us to get to know them. Ask questions. Listen to their story. Share yours. Be personal, but not creepy. Feel free to share your authentic care, concerns, and sense of pride in them.
  4. Experiences of alienation or social isolation can cause cognitive dissonance expressed in observable ways. The subjective experience of feeling out of place can raise doubts about one’s capabilities, hijack one’s abilities, and erode students’ confidence. Recall how people’s questions about Victoria’s interest in race relations and Black studies as a White student caused her to doubt her own interests, revisit her personal motives, and wonder whether she would be accepted by others on that campus. The disequilibrium caused by their questions led her to spiral out of her own commitments and seek external affirmation about what once made sense internally — remember her question “Does that make sense?” Questions of this kind — what some psychologists call “crazy checks” — are common responses to isolating experiences. It’s when student of color are called out in the classroom to educate all others about issues of race. It’s when Muslim students are subjected to undue surveillance in campus residence halls or when restored citizens leave one “sentence” only to start a new one on campus facing barriers to student aid, campus employment, fair housing, and the list goes on. The take-away message from students in such moments — whether LGBTQ or undocumented — is “I don’t belong here” and that feeling rarely tracks on to success. Students thrive and flourish where they feel like they belong.
  5. And finally, sense of belonging leads to positive outcomes and success — it’s about finding belonging but not fitting in. Several years ago, I titled an article about Black males in college as “Fitting In,” arguing in part that sense of belonging is strongly, positively correlated with peer engagement. That’s still true. But what I’ve learned since 2008 is that belonging does not require students to “fit in” or integrate or change themselves to assimilate to the norms, beliefs, and actions of others. Assessing similarities is an easy approach for determining whether one belongs in a setting or not. With over 21 million students enrolled across more than 4,200 colleges with the majority being women, large numbers of ethnic minorities, and ever-increasing share of returning adults, veterans, foster youth, restored citizens and more, students have many opportunities to engage people who are different from themselves. With so much diversity, colleges also serve as perfect training grounds for appreciating difference, learning acceptance, developing empathy, fostering inclusion, and learning in for understanding. It’s now crystal clear that true sense of belonging is about finding oneself, living authentically, and creating community amongst those who accept people for who they are, as they are…flaws and all, as Beyonce says (smile).

Victoria was looking for a college where people wanted to know her, both personally and academically. She was looking for an academic home where she would feel accepted, respected, and valued as a White “woke woman” (as she described herself) deeply committed to racial justice and Black studies. Think about it this way: people feel most at home amongst those who know their name, accept them unconditionally, and care about them and their future success (ego-extension). Calling students by their name, affirming their heritage, and responding to their needs — from orientation to graduation — is a way of personalizing the college experience, fostering belonging, and increasing odds for success. Adopting non-discrimination clauses, pursuing inclusive practices, and implicit bias training for academic advisors, counselors, guides, and faculty who work with students like Victoria — whose interests may not obviously align with their identities — are ways of improving support services, eliminating essentialist mindsets, and helping all students feel like they belong on our campuses, just as they are. I have a t-shirt that reads: “I belong here” (front)…“We all do” (back). This is what we owe our students; indeed, all students. #BelongingMatters

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This mantra emanates from my research on college students’ sense of belonging. It has been shown to increase confidence, reduce anxiety, and help build belonging. Try it! Photo cred: Danny Ndungu

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