One of the many lame things I did in the first year of college occurred when an In-N-Out Burger truck pulled up on campus. Kids were so excited they waited in line for 45 minutes. But I stomped right past to the dining hall to eat alone.
Why was I so ridiculous? Twenty years has given me some perspective. I went to college in California but I was brought up in the Midwest. California seemed a world apart. For Californians, In-N-Out Burger was a familiar taste of home. But I felt like I wasn’t invited to the party.
My disadvantage, such as it was, was having been brought up in another state. But what if you look around yourself in school and find that few people look like you, and pervasive stereotypes say that your group is less able and less worthy than other students?
Fifty years ago, the great sociologist Erving Goffman wrote, “The central feature of the stigmatized individual’s situation in life…is a question of…‘acceptance.’” Indeed, social stigma can breed a profound uncertainty about whether other people will include, value, and respect you—about whether you belong.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor tells of her experience in college as a first-generation Latina student, “[At Princeton, I felt like] a visitor landing in an alien land…I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school, and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit.” If people as successful and well-respected as Justice Sotomayor experience this doubt, surely it is common.
My colleagues and I call this “belonging uncertainty.” Everyone worries at times about whether they belong, like when you go to a new school or take a new job. But this worry is deeper and more pervasive when you face disadvantage in a setting. Then you can wonder: Do people like me belong here? And if you look out at the social world with this question in mind, even little things can seem to harbor the threat that the answer might be no—like enthusiasm for In-N-Out, or feelings of loneliness or disrespect. And that inference is debilitating.
In my research, I have asked: Could we change this inference? Could we give students a different narrative for understanding challenges in school so they don’t impugn their belonging?
In one approach, my colleagues and I tell first-year college students stories from older students—stories about worries that the older students felt about their belonging early in college, and how they came to feel at home with time. Our goal is to help students see belonging as a normal process that takes time and effort to develop, not as an either/or condition defined in part by group identity. We also ask students to tell us how this process of change is reflected in their own lives, stories we can share with future students.
In one study, this exercise, delivered in an hour-long session in the first year of college, raised African-American students’ grade-point-average through senior year, reducing the achievement gap between African-American and White students by half, and made students happier and healthier, relative to a randomized control group. Years later, a post-doc, Shannon Brady, surveyed students in their mid-20s about their lives as young adults. Strikingly, Shannon found that African-Americans who had completed the exercise nearly a decade earlier reported greater life and career satisfaction.
How could an hour-long exercise in the first year of college improve people’s lives?
The answer involves the different path the intervention set students on. Early in college, the exercise changed how students interpreted daily challenges. Freshman year students told us about their days for a week—struggles in class, difficulties with friends, romantic boondoggles. All students reported similar kinds of adversities. But African-American students who didn’t complete the belonging exercise reported lower levels of belonging when they faced more adversity. It was as if adversities meant to them that they didn’t belong. But for those who competed the exercise, belonging stayed high even on bad days. They had a different narrative. The same events didn’t mean they didn’t belong.
That change in interpretation altered students’ developing lives. In the same survey, Shannon asked students about mentors. Students who completed the belonging exercise reported having developed more significant mentor relationships in college, relationships that continued after college. And those relationships predicted life success.
So what happened? The intervention removed a critical psychological barrier early in a major school transition—a pervasive worry about belonging, rooted in an awareness of negative stereotypes. That helped students develop the kind of supportive relationships that everyone needs to succeed.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Urie Bronfenbrenner, a co-founder of Head Start: “In order to develop normally, a child requires activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid. That’s number one, first, last, and always.”
And that is one of the most important implications of this work. Schooling is about relationships—maybe more than anything else. And it’s our job as teachers, as researchers, and as policy makers to facilitate the kind of productive, secure relationships that help students stay engaged, take risks, and learn.
Yet these relationships can be tenuous. When students come to school from disadvantaged social positions, they can reasonably worry whether they will be included and valued, whether they will get a fair shake. That’s why it’s so important for teachers to reach out and listen to students, to build relationships of trust; to make sure that students know that school is a process of growth and development, and that you have high standards and believe students can meet those standards with hard work; and then to help students learn and grow.
The belonging intervention also tells us something about potential and success. Some say that success is about great contexts—attending a terrific school, say. But all the students in the intervention attended a great university. A great school is necessary but not sufficient.
Others say it’s about having internal qualities that promote success, such as being smarter and more self-controlled than the rest. But in the belonging intervention, a group of students that traditionally performed worse did far better even with no change in their ability, reducing a long-standing achievement gap. Certainly, a minimum of academic preparation is necessary. But far more than we commonly recognize, students are capable of terrific growth and learning if key conditions are met.
Instead, the belonging intervention is a story about how we make sense of the world—the meanings that we draw, from events as little as a long burger truck line: How those meanings arise from the social positions and identities we find ourselves in. And critically, how those meanings can be changed at key times and then, as we engage in the world, become embedded in the structure of our lives. Those meanings we make are pliable but they can become fixed, like clay—for better or for worse.