The College Search: Where Do I Belong?

May Day at Bryn Mawr College
May Day at Bryn Mawr College

College acceptance letters are out, and many students have traveled the country over spring break trying to decide which college will be best for them. For many high school students this may feel like the biggest decision they have ever made, and one that could be life-changing. It is certainly true that choosing one college over another will likely alter one’s life pathway. At its core, education is transformation, and by definition you can’t compare or fully predict the value of a transformative life experience. Some colleges and universities empower students to a greater degree, but it is also true that students have a great deal of agency in making their college experience what they want it to be.

Often when students are choosing a school, they are looking for fit. What campus makes them feel like they belong? The gut reaction to that question is certainly important, but the study of belonging suggests that students can create that sense of belonging–they don’t need only to wait for it to come to them.

Psychologists define belonging as a positive state that comes from the perception that one is an integral part of a community. Belonging has two key components. The first is a sense of valued involvement, meaning that you feel needed and that your contributions matter. The second is a sense of comfort or “fit,” meaning that you feel your personal characteristics are shared with or complementary to others in your world.

Recent studies led by researchers at Duke University have identified many factors that are related to college students’ sense of belonging--and many of these factors are things that students can control or create. For example, researchers discovered that a key factor that relates to a sense of belonging is academic engagement: becoming deeply interested in academic work, talking about course material outside of class, and getting to know professors are all connected to a sense of belonging. Since most college students end up majoring in something other than their choice of major at the time of application, this suggests that students can create a sense of belonging by exploring the curriculum and pursuing the things that excite their passions.

The number of and quality of friendships that students form on campus is another important element connected to a sense of belonging. Having friends who share your values, whom you can trust and with whom you share experiences creates a sense of belonging. This suggests that the social environment could be important to college selection.

Since Duke was one of the sites for this research--an institution with great academics, but also a successful Division I athletics program--the scientists also asked about students’ level of “fanhood.” Perhaps not surprisingly (particularly after watching students and alumni during the recent March madness basketball tournaments), being a fan of your college sports teams was also related to a sense of belonging. While this research looked at sports, prospective students should consider the ways that they will connect to community activities. It is likely that getting involved with any co-curricular activity that provides opportunity for community-building and that fosters college pride (such as the arts, community service, or cultural identity groups) may have the same effect.

A sense of belonging is certainly important, and trying to discern that during a campus visit is important. Psychologists have found that for college students, this sense of belonging leads to better academic performance, higher graduation rates, a sense of wellbeing, and better health.

Some students who visit a campus will have that magical moment of knowing that they can and do belong. The good news--for those who either can’t visit or who don’t quite have that intuition—is that you can build that sense of belonging for yourself no matter where you go.

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