Community & Belonging
Do I belong here?” is the core question that students ask again and again during their time on campus (Walton & Brady, 2017). The question concerns both personal “I” and contextual “here.” Belonging relates to a student’s feeling that they are “seen” within the environment and that they feel connected, cared about, accepted, respected and valued (Strayhorn, 2012).
The importance and challenge of finding a sense of belonging at Stanford has heightened concerns, especially given the power and prominence of social media, the rapidly changing global environment in which we live, and the increased pressures of high school that our students have faced. Developing a sense of belonging manifests differently across students’ social identities. This may prove particularly true for students who come from historically stigmatized and/or marginalized groups. The residences are a key place to start the work of fostering a more inclusive model of belonging for our students than has historically been the case. It is critical that the undergraduate residential system is designed to consider “belonging” in the broadest sense across a diverse range of constituents as well as social and cultural contexts.
The Envisioned Experience
In order to encourage an atmosphere of belonging, undergraduate students should feel “seen” in their undergraduate residence. Their peers and other adults in their environment should strive to know them and to work actively and meaningfully to understand and respect their backgrounds and identities. Within the residences, students should experience a shared sense of responsibility and seek to both express themselves and truly “hear” others’ expression of themselves as well. Each resident should feel that they have equal standing in a community that allows them to engage in collectively determining the norms and values of the residence as a whole.
To create the greatest opportunities for students to feel a sense of belonging, there must be an appropriate number of students, faculty and professional staff working within each residence to facilitate student interaction and shared understanding across the inevitable differences within the community. The residential facilities need to be built to drive interaction and discussion. The facilities also need visually to create, through representation and design, an ability to accommodate a broad cross-section of identities within in each house.
Whereas belonging considers the individuals’ sense of connection to and personal identification with the whole, “community” articulates an individual’s participation and belief in something larger than themselves. Creating a thriving community involves collectively establishing a group’s values and norms, and respecting the importance and responsibility of every individual in contributing to a shared vision of the collective good.
Community is deeply beneficial for many of the outcomes that we seek in the residential process, but recent data suggests that we need to do more to foster thriving community as a cornerstone of the educational experience (Residential Education, 2018). As trust in institutions at all levels has eroded nationally, Stanford students, likewise, struggle to believe that their faculty or administration care about them. In addition, given the flow and movement of students into different housing units each quarter, students struggle to sustain relationships. We need to create communities that facilitate respect and interaction across difference as well as across institutional hierarchies.
The Envisioned Experience
The undergraduate residential experience is an ideal place for students to develop personal and social responsibility, while building understanding across all kinds of differences. Such associations can lead to the growth of mutual respect and support, collective commitment through shared experiences, collaborative obligations in keeping public spaces tidy and usable, and communal objectives for shared norms that students undertake within the residence.
The undergraduate residential environment should provide on-going opportunities for setting community norms, enacting and celebrating these norms, renegotiating and engaging in collective accountability. Often, the simplest moments — such as an intramural victory, a dirty kitchen, or a hurtful comment — can be captured and used to advance students’ understanding of and engagement in community citizenship.
Accordingly, the residential house size needs to be small enough to allow for students to know others and to be known. Innovative models that increase student governance and autonomy within the residences should be considered and piloted. Expanded student decision-making roles with greater control of resources and autonomy, have the potential to shift more students within the residences into active participation and co-creation. Developing a student’s sense of ownership within their accommodation seems essential.