HE scholars have long recognised the centrality of a sense of belonging to retention and student success. Yet if the glossy marketing campaigns are to be believed, belonging and success are the preserve of a heterogenous body of full-time young, time-rich, undergraduates, living near campus, revelling in their sole identity as student.

If we think about belonging more usefully, we need to first engage with our increasingly diverse student body – where the student role is not central to people’s identity, but rather locates students in borderlands. University is increasingly a liminal space, a space in-between or alongside: a hallway rather than a room. As such, it is constantly being reconstituted and renegotiated.

Community mental health provides one helpful way of understanding this process of renegotiation. First, recognising the human search for self-acceptance and identity, through reflexive practices we invite people to belong to themselves. Roy Barnett advocates education that disturbs human ‘being’ in order to prepare students to cope and thrive in a world of super complexity. How then do we provide a safe environment for critically examining one’s own stories and assumptions?

Recognising our search for transcendence, we can support people to belong to something beyond their self – whether it be belonging to a cause, the cosmos, or something more spiritual.

Recognising the search for intimacy and community, we might help people to belong to others. But rather than to a faculty or university, this may be about assisting students to connect to their discipline, to professional groups and to broader learning communities. This may be facilitated through highly formal and symbolic events – such as the annual first year “coating” ceremony for Uni Queensland pharmacy students, who are formally given a dispensing coat, recite a public statement of commitment, and welcomed to the family of pharmacy professionals by university alumni. Or it may exist in the micro-moments when we connect a promising student to part of our own professional network, or invite students to join us at a conference or workshop, and support their networking rather than just our own.

Ultimately, supporting student belonging may mean universities disturbing their own notions of where they belong in student lives.

Dr. Lynda Shevellar, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Science & Principal Practitioner – Sense of Belonging (Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation), The University of Queensland [email protected] @uqITaLI

The University of Queensland is a member of CAULLT (Council of Australasian University Leaders in Learning and Teaching)


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