Establishing a strong sense of belonging and purpose, both on campus and in the larger community is essential to engaging and retaining students. For many students, college represents their first taste of true independence, away from parents, teachers and other authority figures. Their actions are their own, and the decision whether or not to get involved is up to them. For college and university administrators, it is imperative that they establish an environment, on campus and beyond, that fosters a sense of belonging so students have the best opportunity to succeed academically, socially and civically.
But along with freedom and a sense of independence comes a challenge — students are most at-risk of leaving college between their first and second years. Therefore, engaging them as soon as they arrive on campus and offering ample opportunities for them to participate in events and initiatives that resonate with them throughout the first year is critical. These efforts can also help to keep students focused on their long-term academic and professional goals.
Engaging in the campus community can have far-reaching implications on the student experience. Students who feel a sense of belonging on campus tend to perform better academically. Strong relationships between students and faculty foster a collaborative educational setting and lead to better outcomes. There are also “town and gown” factors and benefits that extend beyond campus. For example, an institution’s ability to be an integral and vibrant part of the surrounding community can greatly impact the economic and societal success of both the institution and the local area.
One way institutions can help students feel at home on campus is by addressing both their academic and non-academic needs. For example, more than 80% of students at public four-year institutions said it is important that students are made to feel welcome and that the institution shows concern for them as individuals. A collaborative relationship between a college or university and the local community can contribute to a better overall quality of life on campus, but also play an active role in strengthening the local community and contributing to its success.
One recent example of this comes from Pittsburgh, where Uber decided to launch the pilot of its self-driving car program in September. A significant factor in the company’s decision to select the city was the fact that it is the home of Carnegie Mellon University, which has a well-known and widely respected robotics program. Uber is working closely with the University to develop the new program. This is a great example of how a college can serve as an incubator for innovation, helping to foster economic growth and create jobs. Sodexo Foundation funds a grass roots program incubated on the campus of University of Maryland to recover food from college campuses and feed those in need in the surrounding community. Food Recovery Network has grown to 147 student-led chapters in 44 states, having recovered over 1.5 million pounds of food.
West Virginia University (WVU) also offers numerous examples of a college supporting the surrounding region, especially during times of crisis. In the recent President to President article, “The Role of the University in Promoting Community Resiliency,” Dr. E. Gordon Gee, WVU president, describes a few of the times the close-knit campus community has reached out to support the needs of the surrounding area. Some examples include coordinating donations for flood victims, helping to rebuild part of a small town that was destroyed by a fire, and exploring options for economic growth after the collapse of the steel industry devastated parts of the state. WVU also strives to serve as a catalyst for urban growth and development, opening a new campus in a traditionally underserved and economically depressed area. The University views these efforts as not only a way to engage students, but also an opportunity to teach them the value of being active members of the community. Actively working to improve the community and participate in its success, both on campus and in the surrounding area, teaches students the leadership and collaboration skills that today’s employers require.
Creating a strong sense of community, belonging and purpose for college students should begin when they arrive on campus and continue throughout their academic career. Encouraging students to actively engage both with their campus community and the community at large helps them build the skills that they’ll need for success long-term. These efforts help ensure that students are well prepared for life after graduation and encourage them to continue to actively participate in and improve their communities well after they have left campus.
Jim Jenkins is CEO of Universities East for Sodexo North America where he oversees more than 400 college and university partnerships. With $9.3 billion in annual revenues in the U.S. and Canada, Sodexo’s 133,000 employees provide more than 100 unique services that increase performance at 9,000 client sites and improve Quality of Life for 15 million consumers every day.