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Promoting a Sense of Belonging Among Grad Students

(Another reason to enjoy UIC's Grad Student Appreciation Week)

Research indicates the importance of fostering a sense of belonging for college students—particularly to support first-generation students, international students and student populations who have been historically minoritized by higher education institutions, including Black, Hispanic or Latinx, and Indigenous students. Students who are facing structural barriers within higher education persist through such challenges and are better equipped to seek support if they have a strong connection to their program and institution. Thus, it’s clear we must be more intentional with how we promote belonging within graduate education.

Unfortunately, however, graduate education is often more focused on professional and career goals, without much concern about developing a graduate student’s sense of belonging. Little emphasis is placed on encouraging students to build community beyond their program and across the university. As a result, graduate students are less likely to identify with their graduate institution, even though, in the case of doctoral students, they are likely to spend more time at their graduate institution than they did in their undergraduate program.

As administrators and staff at the graduate college of a major research university, one of our primary objectives in supporting graduate-student success is fostering belonging in all its forms, including at an institutional level. We believe that institutional belonging is just as important for graduate students as academic, professional and social belonging. Like undergraduate students, graduate students live in numerous social worlds that affect and shape their well-being and success. While their engagement at the university level may be different than for undergraduate students, there is still an opportunity to make that engagement more intentional and meaningful.

Yet in-person engagement across all programs and events has been in sharp decline since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual, asynchronous programming has supported more equitable access, acknowledging the needs of students who work full-time, have caregiving responsibilities or are unable to travel to campus consistently. But providing programs and events primarily or only online undermines the opportunities for community-building offered by in-person events.

We sought to redesign our fall 2023 graduate-student orientation to build more equitable graduate educational experiences, equip students with the knowledge and comfort to navigate campus support resources, and foster persistence through academic and related challenges. Thus, after developing a series of asynchronous modules containing general information about navigating our university’s structures, support services and resources, we organized a one-day, in-person orientation dedicated to community-building and belonging.

We chose to center belonging in a variety of facets, including creating a sense of social belonging among peers, building relationships with faculty members and establishing a community within our institution and academe in general.

To promote social belonging among our graduate students, it was necessary to bring them into a shared space and allow them the opportunity to interact in an authentic manner. We accomplished that by beginning our orientation with all new students gathered in the university’s ballroom. Once participants settled at round tables, they had the opportunity to spark conversations with recommended “get to know you” questions.

After a brief introduction of the day’s event, we then engaged in further dialogue. We asked students to raise their hands if they could say “yes” to a particular question—such as, “Do you own a pet?” “Have you met a celebrity?”—and then asked them to share more details with other people around their table. The result was better than we could have hoped for: as many as 450 students engaged in open conversation with their peers, beginning the community-building process.

Our next belonging activity asked participants to share their anxieties and excitements about entering into graduate education. We invited participants to write down on notecards one thing they were nervous about and one thing they were excited about, and we then asked them to swap their notecards with students at other tables. Then students at each of the tables read aloud what was written, anonymously, by another graduate student. This activity allowed students to recognize they were not alone in how they were feeling, promoting both social and academic belonging.

Students then engaged in an exercise in which they were invited to set short-term and long-term goals for their research, teaching, and professional and personal development. We invited students to focus on one of those goals and to identify institutional offices and resources that could help them meet that goal. By relating their goals to institutional support, students were able to begin visualizing how our university will be vital to their success.

Engaging Collaborators at Orientation

Graduate students spend most of their time learning from and with faculty in their academic programs or colleges. Thus, in addition to interacting with other students, we understood the importance of facilitating space with faculty members from across the institution. We invited faculty members involved in graduate education to share their experiences and answer any questions the students had. We also provided each of those 40 faculty members guiding questions that they could use to engage a group of students at their table. Most importantly, we encouraged the participating faculty to get to know students and listen and respond to whatever they desired to share. We allotted one hour for those round tables, yet students continued to ask questions and engage the faculty well after the conclusion of the session.

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