Strayhorn, Terrell L, “The Building Blocks of Belonging and Success in College for Diverse Student Populations” Lecture, University of Missouri-Columbia Office of the Provost and the MU Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, Columbia, MO, August 24, 2015.
Dr. Strayhorn is the director of Ohio State University’s Center for Higher Education Excellence. He stated a desire for an important and candid discussion to be carried on about sense of belonging and its relationship to student success. Observing that an unexpected experience in life often shapes success, Strayhorn described a sense of increasing distance from the collegiate community after the birth of his daughter during his first year at University of Virginia. His observation some years later is that keeping responsibilities may place a person in a role where belonging is more difficult. This creates first time experiences. Factors such as belonging may influence success very seriously, even if other facts such as access to education, finances, etc., are all equalized.
At the core, Strayhorn’s observation is that all students wish to succeed. Not all can communicate that desire well. Often the more mature individuals in education need to remind young people of their potential. Yet the question of why students leave college remains an open question. Strayhorn presented a chart which I could not read due to the size. If I interpreted it correctly, it showed that approximately 25% of people who leave college depart due to problems with finances and financial aid. Approximately 20% leave due to academics. Approximately 5% leave due to flukes of chance. This leaves about 50% who leave primarily due to social factors. Strayhorn went on to analyze some of the academic factors which contribute to student performance.
Many students report that they do not meet with academic advisors (or do not know who their academic advisors might be), nor do they seek help from faculty and staff when having difficulty with course work. Students typically spend 8-10 hours daily involved in cell phone use but only approximately three hours daily on educational activities. Students tend to report about five hours weekly involved in study per course, which is short of the rule of thumb that two hours of independent work is needed per one hour in class.
Aside from the purely academic issues, Strayhorn observes that a sense of belonging is also very important, possibly more important to grade point average, than actual study habits. His analysis did not provide a reason for this. It could be a very fruitful line of inquiry to ask whether a sense of belonging leads to greater academic effort or confidence in asking questions and pursuing success. Yet this lecture did not address that factor. Rather, Strayhorn cited seven core elements which he identified in a 2012 book.
- belonging as a universal human need
- belonging as a fundamental motive sufficient to drive behavior
- context and time as factors determining the relative importance of relationships
- related to “mattering”
- influenced by one’s identities
- leads to positive outcomes and success
- must be satisfied as conditions and circumstances change
Strayhorn went on to discuss the concept he is working with actively now, that of intersectionality. Intersectionality recognizes that humans are complex and really might not be able to separate one characteristic from another. For instance, a homosexual African-American man may not be able to consider himself as homosexual and not African-American, or African-American and not homosexual. Our different identity components are intertwined inseparably. An institutional recognition of this human characteristic could be key in setting the stage for student success.
Because of the challenges of intersectionality we may need to ask if we are satisfied that opening access to more students has worked for student success. Strayhorn suggests that cultural navigation skills are of great importance. There is a culture of higher education which may be relatively opaque to outsiders. As a listener to the presentation, I found myself asking if faculty and administration necessarily know how to navigate any better than students. This may be related to failure to recognize the nature of “humans” as opposed to “professionals” or “scholars.”
Strayhorn suggested that in general students often need to be talked through the process of seeking out help. Many do not know how to ask questions. Students and their families may not understand the cultural script used in a collegiate environment. Gentle coaching, rubrics for seeking out help from instructors, suggestions about study habits, necessary tools, and expected behaviors are very useful, especially to students from families who have not previously sent anyone to college.
I found the presentation more balanced and helpful than I had expected. Strayhorn seems thoughtful and well balanced. I could wish that he had addressed the issues of minority populations as compared to majority populations as well as potential reasons that a sense of belonging contributes so much to academic success.