One of the main reasons we encourage freshmen to find and join student groups that fit their interests is because we believe that connecting freshmen to other students based on a common interest helps speed the acclimation process and leads to a stronger sense of belonging on campus. After all, the dominant theories in the study of college students assert that student involvement in campus life matters for a host of important reasons and lead to higher rates of persistence and learning.
One way to track our student involvement in campus life is to gather information about our students’ participation patterns in co-curricular activities. Thus, we included several questions in the new end-of-the-first-year survey that ask about the degree to which freshmen found student groups or clubs that fit their interests and whether they participated in a variety of activities such as greek organizations, intercollegiate athletics, music ensembles, or any other student club or organization.
One assumption we make about involvement’s impact on persistence and learning is that the driving factor exists simply in the act of becoming and staying involved. In other words, we often don’t think so much about the nature of that involvement (i.e., the nature of the interactions and experiences that occur as a result of that involvement) as we do about the mere existence or absence of it. If you think you smell a hint of foreshadowing here . . . breathe deeply (sorry for the mixed metaphor!).
When we analyzed the data we collected from our freshmen last spring, we tested these two potentially competing hypotheses. Essentially, was a students’ sense of belonging on campus primarily impacted by the existence of involvement or by the nature of that involvement? The results might surprise you (cue more ominous foreshadowing music).
Of all the questions asking about the existence of involvement (whether they participated in athletics, music groups, student clubs, greek organizations, and the degree to which they found student groups that fit their interests), the only one that produced a statistically significant positive effect on our students’ sense of belonging was athletic participation.
The rest of the measures of the existence of involvement . . . nothing, nada, zippo.
However, several questions that asked about the nature of students’ interaction with others on campus – an unavoidable byproduct of involvement – produced statistically significant effects even after taking into account the existence of student involvement in all of the ways assessed above.
- My out-of-class experiences have helped me develop a deeper understanding of how I relate to others.
- About how often have you had serious conversations with students from a different race/ethnicity, economic background, religious beliefs, or political opinions than your own?
Interestingly, several questions that asked about students’ curricular experiences also impacted students’ sense of belonging on campus.
- In your courses, how often were you asked to examine the strengths and weaknesses of your own views on a topic or issue?
- How often did faculty ask you to apply your learning to address societal problems or issues?
There appears to me to be some possibly important overlap between these two sets of questions. All four of these questions ask about experiences that require empathy, suspending judgement, and learning to see issues through a perspective other than one’s own. I wonder if these kinds of experiences may actually perpetuate a deeper, more meaningful sense of belonging and fit. Simply finding a group of people who already share one’s interests suggests that the individual looking to fit in doesn’t need to do anything to make the fit happen. As a result, they don’t have to commit to grow or change. I suspect this allows them to maintain something of an emotional escape hatch (e.g., “if this doesn’t work out, so what”). But if fitting in necessitates a measure of empathy, suspension of judgement, and perspective-taking, I wonder if these behaviors also increase the likelihood of commitment, thereby producing a deeper sense of belonging and fit.
The fact that an increase in any of these four experiences paralleled an increase in a student’s sense of belonging on campus suggests to me that the nature of a student’s involvement may be more important than the mere existence of it. Thus, encouraging someone to find and join a student group that shares similar interests, while it might be beneficial on some level, may not necessarily be enough to develop a deeper sense of belonging on campus. Instead, it appears that interactions that force students to encounter and interact across some dimension of difference toward a successful conclusion can play a critical part in our students’ capacity for fitting in at Augustana College. Like many of the other issues we are thinking about as we focus more precisely on student learning, when we talk about maximizing student involvement, let’s remember to ask ourselves, “To what end? What do we want our students to learn and how do we want them to grow as a result of this experience?”
Make it a good day,