Carl Hernandez III, Vice President, Office of Belonging
As a child of migrant farm workers, I labored in the olive vineyards of California’s agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley. As a young man, I also worked in vineyards and a fruit packing house in proximity to where Cesar Chavez organized the United Farm Workers Association and about which John Steinbeck penned his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath. I never imagined belonging to a university founded and established in the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains-Provo, Utah to be exact. My experience at Brigham Young University (BYU) with students, faculty, and staff, was and has been transformative. We hope to assist the university in its great objective to help others achieve their greatest potential and to experience an elevated sense of belonging. We also hope our work can, in some measure, be of benefit to a world seeking greater connection and belonging.
Beginnings of Belonging
I attended BYU law school where former BYU President Kevin J Worthen, one of my professors, took an interest in my well-being and engaged me in his research about using the United States Constitution to empower educational institutions to create a better sense of belonging for America’s struggling underrepresented youth. I was captivated by the spiritual and intellectual foundations of his scholarship. I clearly did not have any vision then of how his mentoring would influence my future. He both inspired me and believed in me. His intentional and deliberate approach to mentoring helped me, a first-generation college student and child of migrant farm workers, to feel a sense of belonging at one of the largest private universities in the country.
In June 2020, in the aftermath of racial tensions precipitated by the death of George Floyd, officials at the highest levels of leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the NAACP issued a joint statement calling “on government, business, and educational leaders at every level to review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all.” In immediate response to this call to action, President Worthen formed the BYU Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging (“CoREB”), and, he invited me, then a member of the BYU law faculty, to be one of its members.
The initial charge President Worthen gave to the newly formed committee was powerful. The committee was “to seek strategies for historic, transformative change at BYU in order to more fully realize the unity, love, equity, and belonging that should characterize our campus culture and permeate our interactions as disciples of Jesus Christ.” Inspired by this charge, CoREB spent the remainder of 2020 studying and creating a 60-page report that contained 26 recommendations which was published in February of 2021. The first two recommendations were to create a new Office of Belonging and a new position of Vice President of Belonging who would report directly to the president, be a member of the president’s executive council, and be charged with fostering a stronger sense of belonging within the BYU community. In March 2022, after an extensive search process and thirty years after the transformational mentoring I had received from him as a law student, President Worthen appointed me to work in a new vineyard as BYU’s first vice president of the newly formed BYU Office of Belonging.
The BYU Statement on Belonging
Coinciding with the creation of the Office of Belonging, the BYU Board of Trustees approved the BYU Statement of Belonging, which serves as the “constitution” for the new Office of Belonging.
The BYU Statement on Belonging provides the framework for undertaking a deliberate approach to fostering a community of belonging-one that captures the unique characteristics and mission of BYU. Relevant points of the statement include:
With this framework, the Office of Belonging embarked on a new journey to achieve the lofty aspirations of objectives of the Statement on Belonging.
BYU’s Belonging Strategic Plan
To further buttress belonging, the university added to its five-year strategic plan an objective to “promote a sense of belonging among all members of the campus community,” which is an important part of resource planning for all university operations. All efforts have culminated in a centralized approach to university belonging that is approved, resourced, and supported at the highest levels of university leadership.
Fostering a stronger sense of belonging at BYU is enhanced by the Office of Belonging’s creation of a board-approved strategic plan. The Mayo Clinic has noted: “Nearly every aspect of our lives is organized around belonging to something…[and] [w]e cannot separate the importance of a sense of belonging from our physical and mental health” and, “our spiritual health” as well. Thus, there are a variety of ways an individual’s sense of belonging can be affected. The Office of Belonging’s strategic plan seeks to address each of these by focusing on the follow elements:
The Office of Belonging has already operationalized or is in the process of operationalizing the plan to assist with improving a sense of belonging on campus.
Connect. Belong. Become.
Primary objectives of the Office of Belonging are to: Connect, Belong, and Become. We recognize the importance of connection and service to belonging, and ultimately, to becoming in achieving both our individual and collective potential.
The United States Surgeon General recently released an advisory stating that we are suffering an epidemic of isolation and loneliness in our country and “calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country.” BYU students are not immune from this epidemic.
The Office of Belonging serves as both a physical location and a resource to the BYU community to help students, staff, and faculty to connect with each other and with resources that help them to serve and grow in genuine concern and love for one another. Helping one another recognize our shared connection to God and to each other helps us to achieve BYU’s mission statement that “all relationships within the BYU community should reflect devout love of God and a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbor.” By helping the BYU community to connect with one another and to access belonging resources, the Office of Belonging hopes to create a greater and more collegial community of respect, understanding, compassion, friendship, and love.
There are significant belonging benefits where students who can interact and connect with faculty. An example of how the Office of Belonging is engaged in creating better student connections at BYU is a newly created and required first-year Foundations for Student Success course. The Office of Belonging participated in the creation of this new curricular offering that will be taught by full-time tenure-track faculty and will engage students in understanding the unique mission of BYU, principles of belonging, and how to succeed academically. These courses will be taught in small sections to allow for close student-faculty interactions. The hope is that faculty will continue mentoring their students and that students will create a base of close relationships that can endure the remainder of their university experience.
Another example of improving student connections is the convening of university leadership in a Student Academic Success Executive Council that is creating strategic plan to ensure clear accountability and connection for academic advisement for students. The council seeks to help students more easily connect with academic success resources, to help faculty improve pedagogy in ways that improve connections with students, and to close existing equity achievement and graduation gaps.
The majority of those responding to the most recent Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) Diversity and Equity Campus Climate Survey (72%) reported being satisfied with the extent to which they experience a sense of belonging and community at BYU. Overall, students and employees feel positive about the BYU climate. The study found that “there is room to improve the climate to be more welcoming for all students and employees, particularly for women and for people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.”
In the past year, the Office of Belonging has assisted several colleges and departments implement belonging principles in statements, curriculum, and events. Our staff is creating a belonging focused curriculum that advances the mission of the university, the Statement on Belonging, and Aims of a BYU Education. Student research assistants have played a key role in creating the curriculum by convening focus groups, analyzing data, and writing the curriculum.
An example of collaborative belonging work with the academic colleges initiated from the Office of Belonging involves engaging students in service through credit-bearing belonging experiential learning courses. For example, the Office of Belonging partners with the BYU J. Reuben Clark Law School to hold a weekly clinic to provide legal representation for the immigrant community. BYU law students, BYU law faculty, and Office of Belonging undergraduate students do client intakes, prepare legal filings, and connect their clients with other local services that help to improve their sense of belonging in our community. Another collaborative experiential learning opportunity is planned for this fall with the College of Life Sciences. Our office and faculty will work with undergraduate students who will help underrepresented elementary age students in Title I schools participate in local science fairs. Another collaboration planned for the fall semester is with our History Department. Students will engage underrepresented populations in writing and preserving personal histories. Service is an important and critical part of creating a sense of belonging for our entire BYU community, as well as the local community that benefits from our students integrating substantive knowledge with experiential learning.
A BYU education is intended to be a spiritually and intellectually transformative experience that “seeks to develop students of faith, intellect, and character who have the skills and the desire to continue learning and to serve others throughout their lives.” Assisting our students to achieve their divine potential is central to all we do. The acquisition of knowledge is incomplete without focusing on our unique mission to provide students with a transformative, character-building experience that helps them to also focus on who they are becoming.
Every member of our BYU community plays an important role in helping our students to both see and achieve their full potential. The Office of Belonging is charged with assisting our entire university community to convene, collaborate, plan, and execute ways to help our students achieve this lofty objective, and to move the entire campus community towards becoming more of a community of belonging.
Achieving a Community of Belonging
Achieving a community of belonging begins with intentional and deliberate efforts at the highest levels of leadership to create and adopt a framework that is grounded in the mission of the organization. Additionally, strategic structuring of stewardship and accountability and adequate resourcing are also key to successfully launching belonging efforts.
The BYU Statement of Belonging guides us in prioritizing and building the relationships that we value most. It leads out with what we have in common, and then recognizes, respects, and values the variety of individual characteristics, life experiences and circumstances, perspectives, talents, and gifts that strengthen us as a community. We can find strength and unity in both what we share collectively, and what makes us unique individually.
Ultimately, the multiplicity of “[o]ur interactions create and support an environment of belonging,” as “we strive to create a community of belonging composed of students, faculty, and staff whose hearts are knit together in love.”
 Locking Arms for Racial Harmony in America, June 8, 2020, https://medium.com/@Ch_JesusChrist/locking-arms-for-racial-harmony-in-america-2f62180abf37.
 See Report and Recommendations of the BYU Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging (February 2021), https://race.byu.edu/00000177-d543-dfa9-a7ff-d5cfc1dc0000/race-equity-belonging-report-feb-25-2021
 BYU Statement on Belonging, Aug. 23, 2021, belonging.byu.edu/statement-on-belonging.
 BYU Strategic Objectives, June 6, 2022, https://www.byu.edu/about.
 Jennifer Wickham, “Is Having a Sense of Belonging Important?”, Speaking of Health (blog), Mayo Clinic Health System, Mar. 8, 2019, mayoclinichealthsystem.org.
 “Hope in Christ,” Liahona, May 2021.
 New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States, https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/05/03/new-surgeon-general-advisory-raises-alarm-about-devastating-impact-epidemic-loneliness-isolation-united-states.html.
 Building bridges in higher education: student-faculty relationship quality, student engagement, and student loyaltyÂ Int. J. Educ. Res., 100 (2020).
Diversity and Equity Campus Climate Survey Key Findings Report, February 2021, https://data.byu.edu/byu-diversity-and-equity-survey-report-feb-2021.
 Aims of a BYU Education, https://aims.byu.edu/aims-of-a-byu-education.
BYU Mission Statement, https://aims.byu.edu/byu-mission-statement.
 Id., see also “The Challenge to Become,” Liahona, November 2000.
 BYU Statement on Belonging, Aug. 23, 2021, belonging.byu.edu/statement-on-belonging.
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