With a child on the way, my mother and father made their way to the United States from a hole-in-the-wall town in South India to begin a new life in a melting pot of endless opportunities — but without family or friends. This is a familiar story to children of immigrants. Roger Cohen phrases this unique experience best in his New York Times Opinion piece “The Quest to Belong.” “New opportunity is only one side of the immigrant story, its bright star,” says Cohen. “The other side, its black sun, is displacement and loss.”
This isn’t just the reality of an immigrant, it’s the reality for all of us. Finding a sense of belonging is a fundamental component of human nature. Our identities are often divided into what an outsider can see and how we view ourselves. A sense of identity and belonging is not a characteristic or trait we can visibly see, but is rather innate and specific to the individual. This sense of belonging is often an indicator of the student’s ability to engage within a community, and ultimately, of their success.
How often do you ask yourself, “do I feel like I belong at the University of Michigan?” The following research study, “College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A National Perspective,” recognizes the lack of existing data and information surrounding our understanding of the concept of “belonging.” The report says, “In college, feeling a sense of belonging may lead students to engage more deeply with their studies, leading to persistence and success.” A sense of belonging serves as a source of motivation. The students who reported higher feelings of belonging also reported improved mental health. The study concludes that underrepresented racial-ethnic minorities and first-generation college students report the lowest sense of belonging. The primary author of this research report, Maithreyi Gopalan — an assistant professor of education at the Pennsylvania State University — suggests that, “We know from other studies that student advising, institutions, faculty, advisers — all of them have to make an effort to reach out to students who feel like they don’t belong and provide attention as well as services to ensure that all students can integrate on campus.” Gopalan explains that faculty representation and mentorship can significantly mitigate feelings of alienation.
With that in mind, it’s important we take it upon ourselves to identify methods by which University staff and faculty can better support underrepresented racial-ethnic minorities and first-generation students with their college experiences. Likewise, it’s crucial for students whose identities aren’t underrepresented to act as allies.
It is essential to seek out mentors within the ranks of upperclassmen, GSIs or faculty who share similar identities to your own, and to actively engage in social science courses that relate to your core identity. This is essential to ensure that all students, whether they are a first-generation college student, identify with a marginalized community, are a child of immigrants or have another campus identity, find a community they belong to within the University.
The University offers a wide variety of courses and programs for the purpose of fostering a sense of belonging among first-year students. For example, The Center for the Education of Women (CEW+) offers professional, academic and financial support to all students, in particular women and underserved students. CEW+ offers counseling services, funding for initiatives on campus and hosts many Diversity, Equity and Inclusion events as well as professional development workshops. Another great example of a community-building resource is the Spectrum Center, which provides support to LGBTQ+ students, staff and faculty through workshops and programs. In partnership with the Spectrum Center, there are social and support groups such as Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (OSTEM). This student and national organization operates at both the undergraduate and graduate level to provide peer support networks and resources for students to navigate their identities in professional STEM settings.
The University is home to a diverse array of students holding a multitude of social identities. It’s often easy to feel lost amid the thousands of student organizations, programs, majors and opportunities available. This means there is a larger community at your disposal. Take advantage of it. At the end of the day, we are all just students trying to find a place we belong at the University.
Varna Kodoth can be reached at email@example.com.