Belonging and belongingness are buzzwords that have begun to gain increasing attention and research focus in the psychology world and beyond. Many Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion designations have expanded to be known as Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging initiatives, as they aim to make higher education more accessible to and inclusive of everyone. It is not enough to increase representation and to include more people at the table if those people do not feel secure and valued at the table.

Allen et al. (2021) define belonging as "a subjective feeling that one is an integral part of their surrounding systems, including family, friends, school, work environments, communities, cultural groups, and physical places." What these systems look like exactly can vary from person to person, but the key principle is that one is a valued and secure member of one or more informal groups. These researchers posit that, when a person belongs, they thrive.

Echoing Maslow's idea that belonging is a basic psychological need, they also compiled the findings of previous studies. They found that an increased sense of belonging was associated with:

  • Improved mental health and emotional well-being
  • Academic self-efficacy and success
  • Perseverance
  • Life satisfaction
  • Self-esteem
  • Lowered school dropouts, absenteeism, and school disengagement

These are a few of the many beneficial effects linked to experiencing increased belonging. On the other hand, lacking a sense of belonging can yield several adverse consequences for our physical and mental health. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on health risks associated with social isolation and loneliness, the two constructs have been associated with increased likelihood of experiencing or developing the following:

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Suicidality and self-harm
  • Dementia
  • Earlier death

These are striking potential consequences and, while there are several other potential contributing factors, it is important to think about how we can minimize loneliness by bolstering a sense of belonging. The CDC report also noted that there are many factors that exacerbate one's risk of loneliness, including coming from an identity that is marginalized due to several systemic factors that might lead to isolation. When we think about this, we can also see that belonging and loneliness are closely tied to equity work.

How is this Relevant to Higher Education?

In April, APA called for diversification of the mental health workforce through the introduction of the ACCESS in Mental Health Act. This bill put significant funds toward supporting students at minority-serving institutions who are pursuing an education in mental health to even out the lack of representation in the helping field. This is emphasized further by a report from the U.S. Department of Education on diversity and inclusion in higher education, which illuminated the significant pay gap between educated and non-educated people, which is steadily increasing with academic inflation and is more pronounced in communities of color.

How does this relate to belonging? Dr. Maithreyi Gopalan spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the link between a sense of belonging, academic performance, and retention in universities. To put it simply, belonging promotes success in higher education. With this in mind, we begin to see the profound need to promote belonging in our efforts to promote true inclusion on our campuses.

What's Currently Being Done?

Several schools and organizations have taken steps to promote belonging. Northeastern University's ROADMAP program, for example, provides an opportunity for underserved and historically marginalized students in Bachelor's and Associate's programs to obtain paid and mentored research experience in Northeastern's applied psychology labs. This program will help prepare students for graduate school through experiential learning, workshops on the application process, and encouragement from mentors. This program blends practical support (which is also important!) while reminding students of something that is vital to their success—they belong in the field of psychology.

What Can I Do?

You may be wondering how you can play a role in promoting belonging in higher education. You may even feel powerless if you're not in a position of authority to implement a wide-scale program like the one described above. The good news? You don't need a title to make a difference. We can effect change in many ways, big and small, and both are important.

While you may not have the resources, funds, or time to plan entire programs, here are three options you might consider:

  1. Host social events in your academic community. You'd be surprised how many people around you who seem like they have it all together may be seeking connection. This is especially true if you're in a school or program that attracts students from all over the country or even the globe. Education is great, but we also need connection. Planning a trivia night or a meetup at a coffee shop might be a great way to get to know people in your program and make them feel seen.
  2. Find someone you can mentor. Never underestimate the impact that you might be able to have on another person. I know that I owe much of my success in life to the sum of the formal and informal mentorship and encouragement I've received over the years. There might be people in your lab, workplace or in your online communities who want to get to where you are and simply don't know how or don't believe that they can. Consider reaching out to them to see how you can support their journey.
  3. Check out the resources that already exist on your campus. There may be plenty of ways to get involved in DEI-B work already in place at your school. Sometimes, we get so caught up in just finishing school that we miss out on the opportunities around us. When we get involved with community, the belonging effect is reciprocal. In reminding others that they belong, we are also reminded that our place in our communities is special.

These are just a few considerations when thinking about belonging and how it relates to higher education. There are many barriers that can stand in the way of promoting belonging and it can seem daunting to think about how we undo them. That being said, we can always start right where we are to make that change.