Increased engagement with local communities could foster a better sense of belonging among students

Building deeper connections between students and local communities could be one of the ways in which universities seek to improve the sense of belonging felt by their students.

Emphasizing the social, cultural and environmental dimensions of belonging and recognizing the cultural messages that are implicit in the physical environment were also highlighted as recommendations to be taken into account by a new policy note published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

Student Belonging and the Broader Context (Policy Note 39), written by Dr. Richard Vytniorgu, postdoctoral researcher at the Wellcome Center for Cultures and Environments of Health, is based on structured interviews with students who explored their sense of membership.

The policy brief shows that students’ sense of belonging to their higher education institution is best situated in the context of their sense of belonging to the rest of the world – and that too often it is assessed as an isolated phenomenon , specific to being a student.

This correlation was confirmed in two notable areas:

  • While students welcome the diversity of staff and students, they more generally caution against overemphasizing differences in identity between people at the expense of finding common ground that can bring people together. from different backgrounds.
  • Residence students can often be frustrated by the lack of opportunities to connect with local communities beyond their institution or campus. They recognize that the home experience can be found anywhere, but that it can be important to form a strong social life that could extend beyond institutional affiliation, extending into the community. at large.

“While student belonging figures increasingly prominently in policy, it is too often seen as an isolated phenomenon without any reference to students’ broader ideas of what it means to belong to the rest of the world,” said said Dr. Vytniorgu. “This report suggests some ways in which higher education membership might be considered in relation to more general membership. I hope this will encourage higher education policymakers to think about how membership-friendly policies can have an impact and promote students’ sense of belonging to the rest of the world. »

The report, which is in part a response to recent events where student mental health and wellbeing does not appear to have been given the priority it deserves, includes five policy recommendations. These aim to help higher education professionals think about how to foster a deeper sense of belonging in their students:

  1. Avoid reducing student belonging to an oddity of individual students and instead recognize that students emphasize the social, cultural, and environmental dimensions of belonging.
  2. Work with students and staff to identify commonalities – Equality, diversity and inclusion policies should avoid highlighting divisions between students at the expense of student cohesion in academic and extracurricular activities.
  3. Facilitate deeper connections between students and local communities to help students feel more “at home” where they live and to encourage them to contribute to a larger community beyond their institution.
  4. Identify the cultural messages of the physical environment, as students know that the physical environment communicates ideas about the purpose of spaces and the value that institutions place on different people.
  5. Co-create membership policies at a local rather than centralized level – for example, within departments or, if working with university-wide services (such as mental health and wellness students), in tandem with a departmental student experience manager.

“There are few things in life as important to personal well-being as a sense of belonging,” said Nick Hillman, director of HEPI. “It’s already much more widely recognized than before, but there’s still work to be done to understand how to instil a sense of belonging, including among students.

“Right now, young people in particular often feel crowded out by society, which tends to seem and often feel more interested in the needs of older people than those on the cusp of adulthood. independent. This is not an easy thing for educational institutions to tackle, given limited resources and the welcome increase in diversity among the student body, but the gains in terms of student satisfaction, lower dropout and improvement in learning could be enormous.

Mary Curnock Cook CBE, Chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission and HEPI Trustee, added:

“The work of the UPP Foundation’s Commission for the Future of Students has laid bare the unseen ravages of the pandemic that have diminished students’ confidence in their academic studies and their personal and professional relationships. The powerful benefits enjoyed by students working closely with university leaders during COVID led to our central recommendation of a Manifesto for Student Futures, co-created and co-produced by students and staff.

“Students told us that a more affiliative, networked and social approach to staff-student relationships was key to feeling valued, which in turn strengthened their sense of belonging.”

The research was funded by a Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund Award and carried out at the University’s Wellcome Center for Cultures and Environments of Health.

The full report, Student Belonging and Wider Context, is accessible via the HEPI website.

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