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BLOG: Sense of Place and Belonging: Lessons from the Pandemic

By Linda Adler-Kassner, Margarita Safronova, Yasmine Dominguez-Whitehead, Karen Gonzalez, Stephanie Nguyen, and Malaphone Phommasa

How did students who expected to start college in person find a sense of place and belonging when their college careers began online during the pandemic? That’s the question that motivated our research. Our study explores the relationship between place and sense of academic belonging for students in fall of 2020, when they started their first years at our university remotely. Our research team, made up of undergraduate students, academic staff, and faculty members, work toward the common goal of creating equitable and inclusive learning environments for students. We know that learning is an active process that can be affected by a multitude of factors. We wanted to focus specifically on place because that was one element we had the least information about. 

Our research was especially important for campus communities like ours—primarily residential, and heavily reliant on “the campus” (buildings, scenery, bicycles) to signal transition. This includes transition to “college life,” but also transition between the disciplinary communities that students would encounter in their college lives. We wondered what factors students had identified that signaled movement and belongingness—a sense of place—in prior educational experiences, and what they were finding here during their first academic term.

Our interviews were often heartbreaking, as students described their sense of isolation and disconnection from the university experience. But these narratives also reinforced the importance of framing courses as communities of practice. While we have been promoting this practice for in-person instruction, this study emphasizes the relevance and importance of this practice in remote and hybrid learning environments. As we remind ourselves that students take courses in different disciplines, intentional framing of how a course fits in the discipline and a clear explanation of what the students will learn from a course and why, have never been more important.

Read the full TLI article here.

Illustrated by: Micaela Gomez

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