V5I2: Letter from the President
Dec. 8, 2022
⋅ Categories: Beacon
Transformative Education: The Connected Student
Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU
One of my favorite pastimes is to pick up the dictionary and leaf through the various pages for particular words, not just to look up the meaning, but also the etymology.
A couple of words that I have been ruminating about recently include “belonging” and “community,” which are words in everyday use and most everyone can define the same, likely even without looking up a dictionary.
The word “belonging” is a noun of Germanic origin and refers to “an affinity for a place or situation.”
The word “community” is a noun, derived from the Latin word “communis,” and refers to the English word, “common.” Community has multiple meanings, including “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” In the ecological context, community refers to “a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat.”
Similarly, “connected” is an adjective referring to being “associated or related in some respect” and “engage” as a verb is “to establish a meaningful contact or connection with.”
Yet another term of relevance here is “self-efficacy,” which the American Psychological Association (APA) defines as “an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments.” Kin to self-efficacy is “agency,” which the APA defines as “of having the power and capability to produce an effect or exert influence.”
As I contemplated writing this article on “the connected student” as being a prerequisite to transformative education, I was reminded that phrases such as belonging, community, connectedness, self-efficacy, agency, and engagement are part of the constellation of words and phrases that connote and are critical to belonging and community.
By extension then, these phrases are foundational to creating a transformative educational environment and ecosystem, which places the student at the center, as in being student centric.
When we consider student success, we immediately think of how best to enhance cognitive and subject-matter knowledge and skills via student learning experiences, i.e., the instructor-facilitated learning that occurs in and out of the classroom.
Nobel Laureate economist, James Heckman and his colleagues have demonstrated that inculcation of noncognitive skills, which promote social and emotional skills, are critical for success, countering the argument that cognitive skills matter most.
Institutions that are highly successful know that student success requires a combination of providing the relevant cognitive, subject-matter learning experiences and inculcation of noncognitive skills in a transformative educational ecosystem.
In their 2020 article on best practices to build community and promote belonging amongst college students in a virtual setting, Justin Beauchamp and colleagues at Ithaka S+R suggested that the sense of belonging straddles the social, academic, and institutional contexts. They suggested several best practices to help create community and belonging, including: ensure basic needs are met; use multimodal communication platforms; involve peer mentors; provide opportunities for students to share their experiences and follow through with appropriate support; engage parents and families; facilitate collaboration; and demonstrate care and compassion.
While Beauchamp et al. focused on students in the virtual environment during the pandemic, their contexts and best practices are relevant also to the on-campus, hybrid/HyFlex, and exclusively online environments students are availing their education in the post-pandemic institution.
Similarly, a recent report from Indiana University on belonging, suggests that students must feel like they can relate to others in the campus community, which impacts student persistence and success. These findings indicate institutions of higher education can and must develop interventions that improve students’ sense of belonging.
In a previous issue of The Beacon, I wrote that exceptionally successful institutions create highly personalized and transformative educational opportunities, catering to each student individually by offering tailored advising, classroom and experiential learning, inculcate noncognitive skills, incorporate high impact practices, provide just-in-time and emergency financial aid in the form of grants, promote community by helping create relevant social networks, ensure availability of support services such as housing, food, physical and mental healthcare, and daycare for students who are parents, and render other critical support.
The complete moral, emotional, intellectual, and civic transformation of the individual – succinctly reflected in the German word, bildung – describes and offers a framework for promoting the environment where students feel connected. There is, however, no one-size-fits-all model to create the student-centric, transformative educational ecosystem to promote community and a sense of belonging: it is context and mission dependent. However, effective programs share many elements.
Indeed, in response to an informal survey on efforts to promote community and a sense of belonging amongst students, I heard from some of our member institutions. Below I have provided one or two examples for each, from the myriad approaches offered on their campuses.
- Westminster College promotes community and a sense of belonging by focusing on ensuring student mental health. Rooted in evidence-based psychological research, the curriculum helps students learn and practice life skills associated with well-being, academic resilience, and healthy mental health habits.
- Clover Park Technical College serves a non-traditional student body that has, in addition to non-academic financial barriers to entering and completing, the associated “imposter syndrome,” which sometimes means they are looking for any kind of sign they are not welcome or do not belong. The college recently opened their Multicultural Office of Student Access, Inclusion and Community (MOSAIC) Center to offer space and programming focused on belonging and inclusion. In addition, the college has programs to address nutritional insecurity, mental and physical healthcare, childcare, and also offers emergency grants.
- Western Governors University (WGU) is targeting key parts of the learner experience with opportunities to promote community, feel belonging, and support transformative learning. For example, their Environmental Barriers Team identifies students who have experienced an environmental barrier or disasters caused by nature or humans, and ensures proactive outreach to confirm their well-being, the level of impact, and any needs that WGU can fulfill. These range from a course extension to lending them a computer.
- South Seattle College is focused on ensuring nutritional security of their students, a significant proportion of whom struggle to access food on a regular basis. The campus food pantry offers healthy foods, beverages, and snacks, along with non-food items such as toiletries, diapers, toothbrushes, shampoo, etc. In partnership with United Way, the college assists students to apply for the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Electronic Benefits Transfer card, which offers $200 in benefits.
- The University of Idaho‘s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) is focused on identifying and eliminating barriers to student success, which includes issues related to belonging, identity, and community. CETL promotes events and workshops on empathy and understanding, culturally responsive pedagogy, high impact practices, building online community, balancing learning and growth, metacognition, and other such efforts.
- When an emergency call reaches Oregon State University’s public-safety department, dispatchers don’t automatically send police. Instead, they may choose to send members of the university’s Assist Team of crisis responders – professionals trained to calm and support someone in distress – in place of law-enforcement officers or alongside them. The intent is to rethink campus safety and field more appropriate responses to students in some nonviolent emergencies, like mental-health or addiction crises. The goal is to ease the tension and prevent violence in sensitive situations and to connect students with resources.
- With funding through the United States Department of Education’s Institutional Resilience and Expanded Postsecondary Opportunity (IREPO) program, Peninsula College has created language and culture courses for Elwha, Makah, and Quileute and is developing curriculum for courses in an Indigenous Studies pathway to better serve students from the sovereign nations in their service area. The college’s faculty are working to extend the reach of their classes through HyFlex teaching so that they can meet the needs of students who want live, in-person interactions and students who need to attend from a distance or need a more flexible course schedule.
- With funding from the National Science Foundation activities for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) scholarship program, Willamette University has created paid research opportunities for cohorts of students who come from historically underrepresented backgrounds. They also provide a series of wrap-around programs for these scholars and an additional student who may not have met the full requirements for the STEM scholarship but would benefit from additional academic and co-curricular support. As first-year students, all participants live in the same first-year residence hall, are enrolled in a common set of first-year seminars taught by tenured STEM faculty and embedded peer tutors for additional support. These students have dedicated STEM faculty advisers, receive targeted support from Career Services, and connect with alumni. They are also offered teaching and leadership opportunities, have meaningful on-campus jobs, and continued reinforcement of core concepts throughout their academic program.
- The College of Southern Idaho (CSI) provides a unique blend of on campus experiences, commuter opportunities, and online learning support to meet community members where they are. Because the sense of belonging is unique to each learner, CSI provides individualized opportunities for all learners to explore and find their niche. These efforts include, for example, positioning faculty and staff around campus on the first few days of the fall semester to welcome and to actively engage with students as they arrive, rather than to passively wait for students to approach them, which enhances the sense of belonging and creates community for students.
- Simon Fraser University (SFU) has created the Building Community and Sense of Belonging (BCSB) as part of its internationally recognized Student Experience Initiative (SEI), which brings together the community through meaningful connections and work to improve student experiences. This effort ensures SFU offers a welcoming, safe, equitable, and inclusive community for all students, supporting transitions in and out.
- Fort Peck Community College has created a program to enhance student retention and success called the Wawogiya Retention Program. Wawogiya is an Assiniboine word that translates to, one that offers to help. The Wawogiya philosophy and Nakoda/Dakota (Assiniboine/Sioux) cultural responsibility is operationalized in the student success retention program. The team includes Student Services staff that utilize retention technologies such as “Dropout Detective” to provide timely services for students and faculty members. A strong emphasis is placed on interdepartmental collaboration to maximize responsiveness to help students achieve their academic goals.
- At Lane Community College (LCC), the Community Advocacy and Resource Education (CARE) service is focused on helping students access food, housing, financial support. The CARE at Lane service is available to all LCC students by connecting them to a variety of community resources, including, for example, USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing or tuition assistance, childcare and parenting resources, healthcare, legal services, and employment services.
- George Fox University has created several programs to promote community and the sense of belonging, some of which have demonstrably contributed to improvements in student outcomes. For example, their Residence Life connections program has three foci: resident identity and faith formation, community engagement, and leadership development. In addition, the university has created a community pantry, along with an emergency and textbook assistance fund for students in need. Their interdepartmental “Adulting 101” workshop is focused on post-graduation success, particularly relationship building, financial literacy, and professional development.
- Starting in 2019, the University of Montana (UM) reimagined its onboarding and orientation program with a focus on increasing student retention through team-based community immersion projects centered on student engagement and sense of belonging. These efforts include, for example, “Bear Tracks“ designed to remove barriers to becoming a student, such as immunization records, health insurance, academic advising, and course registration, etc. and the “Big Sky Experience,” which is a multi-day community-based project that engages new students in space and place and fosters a heightened sense of belonging and peer commitment.
- Utah State University offers a collaborative and academic first-year experience, designed to connect students to the campus community. Staff within the Provost’s office manage logistics and operations, with the objective to help address questions such as: Why am I here; What is an educated person and how is the degree intentionally designed to produce citizen scholars; How do I best engage myself in the process of becoming an educated person; and How do I become a fully engaged member of the university community of learners?
- Lewis & Clark College has developed a roadmap focused on Student Success and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with the intent to coordinate and communicate efforts and progress using data-informed approaches. For example, as part of the New Student Orientation, they focus on Belonging and Transition check-ins and offer Awakened Awareness workshop series.
- Boise State University has created a new Family Study Room at its Albertsons Library. The room is equipped for use by student parents who need to use the library, accompanied by their young children. The room has computers, toys, books, and other activities appropriate for younger children.
- Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU-I) has created multiple approaches to enhance community and sense of belonging for students. These efforts include, for example, significant restructure of the Student Success Councils, and overhaul of a student success course required of every student in BYU-I’s General Education program focused on improving the students’ sense of belonging.
- Southern Utah University (SUU) has a multipronged approach to promote the sense of belonging, which includes a comprehensive first-year experience that combines financial support with enhanced advising, early identification of struggling students, and a focus on fostering a sense of belonging. SUU also overhauled its orientation, redesigned the first-year seminar, and created a new peer-mentoring program. The peer mentors and academic advisers reach out to students an average of 38 times from when they pay their admission deposit to when they move into campus housing.
The above examples are from a fraction of NWCCU member institutions that responded to my informal query; practically every NWCCU institution has programs to promote the complete moral, emotional, intellectual, and civic transformation of the individual by creating an environment where students are connected, belong, and succeed. We see these efforts reflected in the institutional annual reports and in the accreditation self-studies and peer evaluation reports.
Ultimately, transformative education is not just about the student learning experience in the courses they take; rather it is about a combination of the learning experience and the environment where students thrive because they are supported, belong, and are connected and engaged.
For me as a life scientist, the dictionary definition of community in the ecological context, i.e., “a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat,” speaks to what community and belonging is all about.
There’s no magic formula to creating transformative education; it will require a concerted, collaborative, all-hands-on-deck campus effort.
Navigate the articles below, or go to the current Beacon directory.