Engendering a Sense of Belonging: The Case of the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus
By Althea Gordon
Carol Goodenow (1993) defines the sense of belonging as, “being accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others (teachers and peers) in the academic classroom and of feeling oneself to be an important part of the life and activity of the class. Students’ sense of belonging has been identified as a potential lever to promote success, engagement, and well-being in college.”
The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus (UWI Mona) in Jamaica prides itself on being a community of learners from diverse backgrounds. With a population of approximately 19,000 students served by close to 1,000 faculty and an additional 3,000 administrative, technical, and support staff spread across 653 acres, the campus is vibrant and colorful. At present, there are 89 clubs and societies creating space for a number of interests. The management of the campus has, over the years, transformed it into a community with its own supermarket, restaurants, post office, police station, banks, credit union, health services, halls of residence, gyms, and sporting facility. The campus has its own culture and rhythm so newcomers to the environment must go through a period of orientation and immersion to fit into the fabric that is the UWI Mona.
It was recognized at an early stage that engendering a sense of belonging and acceptance in higher education students had to be deliberate and would take strategic planning. For UWI Mona, where I was directly involved in this process, engaging students in order to build a sense of community and belonging began well before the students arrived in Jamaica. New international students were engaged as a group in a series of virtual pre-departure sessions that not only provided information on what to expect upon arrival on the island but to also bring awareness to the larger group of non-Jamaicans. Students quickly understood and accepted that they were not alone in this new experience.
The process of engagement and inclusion continued during the orientation on campus. A special program developed primarily for non-Jamaicans ensured that their needs was our focus and that they had a forum to deal with matters that were specific to them before being plunged into the general orientation program. They were introduced to the culture—both the culture of the Jamaican people in general as well as that of the academic institution. Senior students were invited to deliver and interpret these concepts to make it much more relatable. Differences were highlighted but more so the similarities. There was therefore a total of three introductory programs for non-nationals: the virtual pre-departure program, the special international orientation program, and the general student’s orientation. At the end of the period, the international students were well immersed in the culture, language, and social norms of their new environment.
The second and equally important strategy was to encourage non-nationals to reside on campus. As the campus had 10 residence halls, arrangements were made to ensure that non-nationals were guaranteed accommodation. This created an environment for local, regional, and international students to interact and develop relationships. They participated in daily activities such as attending classes together, shopping for groceries, exploring the island, and collaborating on academic projects. The senior residents assisted new students in navigating the campus and the administration. This was the students’ second introduction to the student registration and class scheduling processes. International students living in halls of residences on campus was therefore key to the sense of belonging.
The third strategy was the ability of all students including international students to be members of the clubs and societies in faculties, residence halls, varsity sports, country associations, and the arts. International students were allowed to represent the institution at debate competitions, computer electronics workshops, and academic Olympiads. They were able to view themselves as part of the fabric of the institution and not simply on the periphery. This is validated as,
A sense of belonging reflects the feeling that one fits in, belongs to, or is a member of the academic community in question. Viewing oneself as being accepted within a discipline rather than on its fringes is a sense of belonging. It validates one’s personal belief that your presence and contributions within the academic community demonstrate your value as an accepted member. (Trujillo and Tanner 2014)
Administrators learned many lessons from the approach taken. For example, it was evident that the early engagement of non-nationals facilitated a smoother transition into the new environment. It also helped to reduce the negative effects of culture shock. Giving international students the opportunity to share their cultures and expectations gave them the assurance that they mattered and that they also had something to offer the Jamaicans in the shared experience. The Jamaican students learned that there was a world beyond the Americas and beyond Europe with people that had similar basic desires. Lectures became much more engaging and robust as the international students felt confident in their status and so felt encouraged to share differing viewpoints. International student numbers grew modestly over the five years of this intense engagement which propelled administrators to look at the orientation and cultural immersion programs to determine what improvements could be made. We quickly realized from surveying the students that what they wanted most of all was to:
- Be seen as just students and not always “international” students.
- Be included in activities of their choice.
- Be allowed to share their culture and its uniqueness.
- Be participants in the Jamaican and UWI Mona culture and to experience interactions with people organically.
- Have all services work as they should.
- Have registration information early so that they can make informed decisions about their academic program.
- Have an enjoyable and rewarding time at UWI Mona and in Jamaica.
It was immediately obvious that our non-Jamaican students’ needs aligned closely with those of our local students. Students, whether local or international, had similar wants and needs.
Goodenow, Carol. 1993. “Classroom Belonging Among Early Adolescent Students: Relationships to Motivation and Achievement.” The Journal of Early Adolescence 13, 1:21–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431693013001002.
Trujillo, Gloriana, and Kimberly D. Tanner. 2014. “Considering the Role of Affect in Learning: Monitoring Students' Self-Efficacy, Sense of Belonging, and Science Identity.” CBE—Life Sciences Education 13, 1:6–15. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.13-12-0241.