Recently, I saw a headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education that said, “Everyone is talking about belonging: What does it really mean?” Good question, what does it mean and how do you achieve it?
Curious, I read on. I learned a few things: 1) Belonging is such a key focus right now on college campuses that Belmont University in Nashville hired a Vice President for Hope, Unity and Belonging. This is predicted to become a trend. Belonging is a basic need, but how it is encouraged will be interesting to watch. Is it a less political charged way to continue inclusion efforts? Is it a response to fears about losing students? Or do we truly see the need to include this in higher education?
The article I read was prompted by a recognition that colleges and universities have missed the importance of relational communities. Everyone wants to feel a part of a group, feel valued and cared for by others. College life is no exception. Data show that when students feel like they belong, they do better with grades, engage more, and have better mental health. Those who don’t feel they belong tend to drop out. However, schools struggle with how to make students feel they belong.
We know one way to belong is to have an affinity group. Find people you can relate to over a common goal, activity, or purpose.
A complaint of many Christian students is that they don’t feel they belong on secular campuses because they feel discriminated against, judged for their beliefs and labeled haters because their values do not always align with the liberal values of administrators. Funny how all the emphasis on inclusion includes exclusion for the Christian student at secular schools. And their places of belonging with affinity groups like CRU or Fellowship of Christian Athletes have been under attack and unwelcome on campuses. Some universities have kicked those groups off entirely.
Secular schools want kids to belong, but their past actions indicate that only certain groups are welcomed.
Regardless of our religious convictions, we used to find points of common interest with our secular college community friends. This wasn’t an issue when I was training at secular campuses. Now, there is so much division among students and even administrators are partly responsible. When Christian students cannot even discuss their values without being mocked, belonging is not going to happen.
And one has to ask, are certain colleges looking for diversity in all areas or only the areas they deem important? One strategy to create belonging is to stop dividing people into sub groups according to narrowing identity criteria. Instead, look for our common humanity. How can we unite and come together? We don’t have to agree on everything, but our move aware from tolerance to forced agreement is dangerous and has resulted in many feeling they do not belong.
Building relationships with a diverse group of people is key. And that should include allowing a Christian student to freely express their religious beliefs and concerns yet not be ostracized at a public university. The same is true for those expressing all sides of political viewpoints. But clearly in the last few years, Christian students are unwelcome and conservative students mocked and discriminated against. Administrators allow such things like what happened at the University of Michigan. Incoming medical students walked out of their white coat ceremony because the speaker held private pro life views. She wasn’t speaking on pro life but that didn’t seem to matter. Students didn’t like her pro life stance and protested her as a speaker by walking out. Could they not tolerate a view that wasn’t even expressed, as different from their own? How sad, disrespectful and discriminatory, but it was allowed. It was even heralded by many. What about the pro life students in that group? How many times will they be asked to tolerate pro choice positions?
If you want to build belonging, you have to build love, compassion, respect and empathy. These basic values are bedrocks of the Christian faith. An authentic relationship with Jesus Christ provides a sense of belonging first to God, then to the community of faith and to others with whom we do life. Christianity functions in communities of belonging. It is how Christ established the church. And higher education has done a good job of marginalizing this community and even destroying it at times.
Belonging includes a sense of security, support, acceptance and inclusion in a group. Christian students who want to build that type of culture on their campuses have faced opposition and intolerance by administrators. If higher education truly wants to work on belonging and increase student retention, this would be a start — allow students to be free from oppression when expressing their Christian faith. Let’s see if that gets supported.