College is the time for students to spread their wings and experience everything that life has to offer. They’re excited to live independently, develop a unique sense of self, and engage in new opportunities. For some students, finding their footing is easy – they’re able to quickly observe their new surroundings, find like-minded peers, and blend seamlessly into the crowd. However, this isn’t always the case. Approximately 64% of first year students struggle to adapt to the changes in their environment or just simply feel like they don’t belong. This can be difficult to overcome without the proper knowledge, resources, and support.
So, what exactly does it mean to “belong?” And why is a sense of belonging so important to students?
According to Dr. Nidia Ruedas-Gracia, Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and U-Thrive Educational Services’ key contributor, “a sense of belonging is the idea or perception that you fit in, are respected, accepted, valued, and matter in a certain space.” It comes down to whether a student feels calm and comfortable in their surroundings – they aren’t worried about being judged by their peers, and they’re free to be their authentic selves.
Colleges with a warm and welcoming environment, high student involvement, mental and emotional wellness programs, and diverse academic and extracurricular activities are more likely to cater to their students’ unique needs. Let’s take a closer look at how a sense of belonging impacts students, and what schools can do to help spread it campus-wide.
How Does a Feeling of Acceptance Benefit Students?
No two students are the same – everyone has their own set of life experiences. Whether it’s diverse cultural backgrounds, family upbringing, or access to financial resources, each student comes with their own individual set of needs. Identifying ways to create a welcoming environment and a sense of belonging for a diverse group of people can be difficult, but it’s essential that schools continuously put forth the effort and test out various techniques. Here are a few reasons why a sense of belonging is so important to students:
Increased Academic Success
A sense of belonging can play a role in one’s self-worth and self-confidence. Students that feel worthy of attending their university and are comfortable studying and interacting in the presence of their peers are more likely to achieve academic success. This isn’t to say that a sense of belonging increases one’s intellectual abilities – it simply refers to the fact that students are more motivated and willing to invest in themselves and their futures.
Students who feel a sense of belonging find it easier to engage with learning material, work in group settings, and seek out additional assistance when necessary. They use school resources such as libraries, internship placement programs, and career counseling to help them achieve their personal and academic goals – these students are less likely to drop out of school and fall short of meeting their desires.
Improved Mental Health
A student’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being can suffer significantly if they feel disconnected from those around them. Anxiety and depression can lead to negative thoughts, self-isolation, and poor academic performance. However, experiencing a sense of belonging helps diminish the potential for these mental health conditions.
Schools with a welcoming environment foster a sense of community that encourages student involvement. Not only are students interacting with each other in a social setting, but they’re expanding their horizons. Whether they’re creating a support system, discovering new hobbies, or exploring new opportunities, the brain is stimulated by feelings of happiness and positivity. The importance of mental health in college students should always be at the forefront.
How Can Schools Help Create a Sense of Belonging?
Schools must first have a thorough understanding of the needs of their student body before they can create a sense of belonging among students. Once they’ve uncovered this, they can use certain initiatives to help students better assimilate to their surroundings. Here are some actionable suggestions:
Provide Continuous Support
It’s important to note that students can lose their sense of belonging at any time. Schools should have an ongoing process in place so that they can aid students when and if they should need assistance throughout the course of the year. This can include providing mental health counseling, hosting inclusive school gatherings and events, bringing in guest lecturers or public figures, or promoting collaboration between faculty, staff, and students.
Professors can incorporate a variety of activities to create a sense of belonging within the classroom as well, such as:
- Using ice breakers to get students acquainted with one another
- Encouraging group discussions
- Implementing interactive activities
- Creating meaningful relationships with students by making themselves relatable
- Promoting the use of outside resources for support whenever needed
The activities that are used in the classroom should be tailored to the unique needs of the students and shouldn’t be seen as a one-size-fits-all approach.
Start Creating a Sense of Belonging
A student’s sense of belonging helps them not only improve their academic performance, but it promotes their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Schools should continuously implement activities to create a sense of belonging, whether it’s through mental health services, education, or large-scale celebrations and recognition.
Don’t wait to help students feel like they belong – start creating a sense of belonging at your institution today! Using U-Thrive Educational Services’ proactive mental and emotional wellness curriculum, you can create a happy and healthy environment for your students. Contact U-Thrive Educational Services today to learn more about how supporting college student mental health can increase a sense of belonging on your campus.