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Increasing sense of belonging through meaningful involvement

Student Leadership Programs
June 29, 2018 Michele Kurtz North Carolina State University

Famous for increasing student retention, wellbeing, and academic success, the concept of sense of belonging continues to be a hot topic in student affairs. Student affairs professionals dedicate many resources to building programs that increase sense of belonging for students. Belongingness, the feeling of connectedness and the experience of mattering, is not limited to the students we serve. Student affairs professionals continuously need to satisfy their own sense of belonging as circumstances change. This post will introduce you to a new student leadership program that promotes sense of belonging and illustrate my own journey for belonging in the profession.

In my role at Wake Forest University, I launched the Engagement Consultant Program, a student leadership initiative led by Engagement Consultants, experienced undergraduates  dedicated to helping other students map their co-curricular journey. A primary goal of the program is to increase student sense of belonging through meaningful campus involvement. The goals of the program often resonate with Engagement Consultants, who reflect on how student engagement transformed their own college experiences. Student leaders channel their experiences, leverage their involvement capital, and compile valuable resources to  support student participants on their quest for belongingness.

Engagement Consultants assist students in identifying opportunities that connect to their personal values identities, and interests. Engagement Consultants help students “find their place” by using the Interest Matcher, an involvement inventory that explores students’ interests as well as academic and co-curricular goals. Engagement Consultants generate a comprehensive involvement report for students inclusive of relevant student organizations, upcoming events, leadership initiatives, identity-based or interest-based communities, and other co-curricular opportunities. Students and Engagement Consultants review the report together and develop a personalized involvement plan tailored to the student’s personal and professional interests.

During the 2017-2018 academic year, over 60 students received direct services from the Engagement Consultant program. Nearly 97% of participants were first-year students seeking meaningful involvement opportunities during their transition to college. Students created action plans with their Engagement Consultants and many maintained mentoring relationships throughout the year. Some actions included joining a student organization, browsing the Campus Labs Engage platform, trying out for a club sport, and attending a late-night event. Student participants reported an increase in sense of belonging through involvement in fraternity and sorority life, student organization membership, undergraduate research, and identity-based student centers on campus.  

As first-year students transition to campus, initiatives like the Engagement Consultant Program help them fulfill a greater sense of belonging. But anyone in transition, including student affairs professionals, may need additional support and mentorship in the process. Whether someone is new to the profession, new to a role, or new to the NASPA community, they will need to feel valued and appreciated to thrive. Like students, student affairs professionals can increase sense of belonging by getting involved in professional associations and communities that align with their values, interests, and career goals.  

As a graduate student, I was eager to join NASPA so I could engage with professionals in the field and grow my knowledge and competencies. While attending my first national NASPA conference in 2015, I was grateful for the professional development opportunities but feared I would struggle to find authentic, meaningful connections with over 9,000 flooding from one session to the next. Even though I self-identify as an extrovert and a “woo,”  I knew I would need to be more intentional about getting involved in NASPA. I sought advice from mentors in the field and they recommended joining one of NASPA’s knowledge communities.

Shortly after graduating with my Masters in Educational Leadership at Bloomsburg University, I discovered my “home” within NASPA by joining the Student Leadership Knowledge Community. To this day I feel strongly connected to this community of people with shared values, interests, and experiences. In 2017, I joined the SLPKC Leadership Team to serve as one of the Conference Special Events ­Coordinators. I developed authentic relationships with colleagues across the nation who shared best practices for leadership programs.  While planning events for the SLPKC that connect other professionals to our team and resources, my connection to the SLPKC has grown stronger.

Once individuals feel valued and appreciated in a community, they can better serve their community. Now that I found my place within the SLPKC,I am committed to assisting student affairs professionals in finding their niche in NASPA. I will continue to refine student leadership programs like the Engagement Consultant Program to increase students’ sense of belonging. In turn, I hope students will lead happier, more successful lives with a greater capacity to positively impact their community.