Building a sense of belonging for students who do not live on campus

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Dr Lynette Pretorius

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Dr Lynette Pretorius is an award-winning educator and researcher in the fields of academic language, literacy, research skills, and research methodologies. 

Students who do not live on campus and commute to university (often termed commuter students) can experience a sense of detachment from the university community, which can adversely affect their student experience. Juggling travel, studies, and other commitments means that these students can feel like they are visitors to their own campus. In a recent paper, my colleagues and I describe and evaluate the non-residential colleges (NRC) program at Monash University, an initiative designed to specifically foster a greater sense of connection for commuter students.

The NRC program creates a space where commuter students can experience similar support programs and campus activities as those who live in the residences on campus. Students are assigned a college mentor (a student who has already studied at the university for a while). These mentors are each responsible for providing mentoring and pastoral support for a small group of students. They also organise social events for their mentees and larger events for the whole college. Each college also has a college head and deputy head, who are members of staff with an interest in student engagement and belonging. There are also administrative staff who oversee the program to ensure an equitable experience for all students. In this way, NRC provides extra-curricular support for commuter students, aiming to emulate the community feel of traditional residential colleges, thereby building students’ sense of belonging.

It is important to note that “sense of belonging” is not just a feel-good term. Research consistently demonstrates that a sense of belonging plays a critical role in the academic and personal development of students. Some of the benefits of feeling connected to your place of study include:

  1. Academic success: Numerous studies have shown a strong connection between a sense of belonging and academic achievement. When students feel like they are a part of their university community, they are more likely to be motivated, engaged, and committed to their studies.
  2. Mental health and wellbeing: The transition to university life can be challenging, often marked by a sense of isolation and disconnection. Feeling connected to the university community can provide emotional support, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve mental health.
  3. Retention rates: When students feel valued and connected, they are less likely to drop out and more likely to complete their degrees.
  4. Personal development: University is a time for personal growth and development. A sense of belonging can facilitate this by providing a safe environment where students can explore their identities, build confidence, and develop interpersonal skills.

We wanted to evaluate the effectiveness of the NRC program, so we surveyed students who were part of the NRC program and students who were not, focusing on their sense of belonging, campus engagement, and overall student experience. We found that NRC students had a more positive university experience compared to non-NRC students. There were four key insights from the study:

  1. The NRC program was effective in enhancing students’ sense of belonging to the university community. This was achieved through increased interaction with peers and staff, along with more frequent campus attendance.
  2. Participants in the NRC program reported a more positive university experience compared to non-NRC students. This was reflected in their choice of words describing their experience, with a higher selection of positive terms like “friendly”, “community”, “comfortable”, and “supportive”.
  3. The study showed that NRC students were more likely to remain on campus after classes and interact more with their peers and teaching staff, indicating an increased engagement in both social and academic aspects of university life.
  4. Interestingly, NRC students were also more likely to have contemplated ways to enhance their employability, suggesting a broader impact of the program beyond just academic and social engagement. This was despite the NRC program not focusing on employability. We think this benefit comes from discussions students have with their mentors, who may be considering employability as they are further along in their course of study.

As universities continue to evolve and adapt to the diverse needs of their student populations, initiatives like the NRC program can play a pivotal role in shaping a more inclusive and supportive educational environment. A strong sense of belonging is linked to the creation of an inclusive environment that respects and values diversity. It is important to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, feel welcomed and accepted. This is particularly important in university settings, where students from various identities, cultures, and backgrounds come together. The NRC programs’ success in fostering community, engagement, and a sense of belonging is a compelling argument for the adoption of similar initiatives in tertiary institutions worldwide.

Importantly, this study underscores the importance of acknowledging that the goal of a university education is not just academic achievement. As educators, we should encourage the holistic development of our students by encouraging students to engage with initiatives such as the NRC program. In this way, we can encourage them to seek out and engage with opportunities to have a more fulfilling university experience.

Questions to ponder

  1. In your opinion, how important is building a sense of community within a university? Can online platforms and social media complement initiatives like the NRC program?
  2. What role can technology play in enhancing the sense of belonging and community for commuter students?

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