We know from both informal conversations with students and from educational research that students come to MSU and stay here when they feel a sense of belonging at MSU.

By: Mark Largent and Renata Opoczynski

“A sense of belonging” is a phrase I have increasingly heard from my colleagues, but not one that I think is particularly meaningful to students.  That is, I have seldom heard students say something like, “I feel a sense of belonging on campus.” Instead, they may talk about making friends or feeling valued by their professors, or they may describe feeling lonely or isolated, like their opinions are not valued or are tokenized, or that they feel lost.  Higher ed professionals take all of these statements as measures of a student’s sense of belonging.

Research shows that a student’s sense of belonging strongly corresponds to their success on campus. Student affairs staff and higher education researchers have long discussed the critical role that a sense of belonging plays in a student’s academic performance and overall success.  Our data tells us that students who leave before they graduate have, on average, GPAs very similar to those who eventually graduate from MSU.  From this we know that academic performance is not the reason why most students leave higher ed without a degree or transfer out of MSU. 

We know from both informal conversations with students and from educational research that students come to MSU and stay here when they feel a sense of belonging at MSU.  They see themselves represented as they look around campus, they hear their own voices and feel that their perspectives are valued. Bias incidents on campus make it harder for all students to feel this sense of belonging, as do the daily microaggressions that students confront.

 We are working to create a diversity of spaces at MSU in which students can build their sense of belonging. A campus as large and diverse as ours has the capacity to create welcoming and inclusive spaces for everyone. The Neighborhood Student Success Collaborative (NSSC) has created several identity communities that host events designed to promote better understandings of one’s identity and promote students’ self-efficacy.  MSU’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD) has long focused on strength- and asset-based work in support of student success, and they are recognized as national leaders in this space. We have long known the great work Mike Hudson and his team in the RCPD have made to individual student success, and it is very rewarding to see them get recognized and promoted for this work with this year’s All-University Excellence in Diversity Unit Lifetime Achievement Award.

The sense of belonging is also closely related to a students’ ability to navigate the institution. Students from families with experience in higher education have a much higher probability of feeling a sense of belonging because they understand the hidden institutional processes and procedures that we often take for granted.  We ought not assume that a student understands the purpose of office hours, knows where they need to go to make an appointment with an advisor, is aware that they can create a payment plan for their tuition, or the myriad of other often unspoken rules and opportunities inherent to college.  As students work their way through campus, they will inevitably confront roadblocks seemingly designed to make them question whether they actually belong at MSU, especially if it appears to them that others are not struggling with these supposedly easy tasks.  We are committed to bringing to light these unspoken expectations and processes so that students can maneuver through the institution and know they belong and are valued here. 

Every student MSU admits has the capacity to learn, thrive, and graduate, and collectively we are responsible for ensuring that MSU has the capacity to support a welcoming, diverse, inclusive, and equitable campus community.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email largent@msu.edu.

Mark Largent is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.