Recently the CTT team was invited to participate in a session exploring this question of belonging in college and to do this in a way that focuses on what we might do individually and in our units to promote a sense of belonging among first-generation and other underrepresented groups.1
The literature strongly supports the idea that a sense of belonging allows students to feel better, to perform well academically, and to persist with their studies. The research shows also that belonging can be elusive, difficult to access, and subject to the assumptions of those who are practiced and skilled in navigating the university that if you made it here, you must know how to "do" college. This sense of belonging does not automatically come, however, with the first step onto campus, in the first class, or from the myriad and sometimes bewildering menu of events and activities routinely offered by universities.
Students from underrepresented groups often struggle to engage with institutions that have not been designed to accommodate them, that have racial monoculture as an inescapable fact of their history and traditions, and which can seem alien and even hostile as a result. At the same time, it is possible to make the case that a significant amount of what underlies these problems is structural – and by that, I mean that there are economic and social forces that determine the demographics and behavior of our universities, and over which none of us currently working in universities have much influence. The latter point contributes to a tendency in some universities to create "a set of meanings and practices that work to institutionalize a benign commitment to diversity, and in doing so, obscures, entrenches, and even intensifies existing racial inequality by failing to make fundamental changes in how power, resources, and opportunities are distributed."2 I am not suggesting that UNL is prey to this tendency, but it is worth staying alert for its manifestations and look for ways to counter it.
One way is to examine the extent to which the language we use in universities militates against a sense of belonging for groups not already fluent in "college speak." In this dialect hidden agendas abound, information exists in code form, and it can seem as though there is a whole new language to learn. As an example, all three of these phenomena exist in the apparently simple and commonplace concept of office hours. To the instructor who belongs in the university, the meaning of office hours could not be plainer: this is the time – often the only time – at which academic work may be discussed, where useful additional information about what and how to learn in this class may be received, and where a student will probably do well to attend if they want better grades. For the uninitiated, however, office hours is plainly the time when the instructor is busy in their office and should not be disturbed.
It doesn’t take many such instances for members of underrepresented groups to fall behind their peers, and for the possibility of belonging, and consequently, academic success, to further recede and alienation to set in. What we can do to counter this is examining the language in which we communicate to students and imagine ourselves as lacking what feels like our innate institutional literacy as we do so. Office hours become "available hours" and we have narrowed the distance a little.
Nunn, Lisa M. College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2018.
Thomas JM. Diversity Regimes and Racial Inequality: A Case Study of Diversity University. Social Currents. 2018: 5(2):140-156. doi:10.1177/2329496517725335