To Belong, or Not To Belong: That Is The Question

by Wendy Fischman

What is the most transformative educational experience you have had to date?

In our national study of higher education, we posed this question to individuals across 10 disparate colleges and universities. Students (incoming and graduating), faculty, young alums, trustees, parents, and job recruiters gave a predictable wide range of responses—specific college courses, study abroad programs, high school books, lifetime friends, and even first job experiences.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a daylong conference on Remaking Education. Participants were asked to think “out of the box” about how higher education could be reinvented—and I was not surprised that stories of transformation were highlighted. But I was surprised at a theme that emerged—one that we’ve rarely heard from the 2000 interviews that we conducted (all of which I’ve reviewed). The theme: persevering in an educational context as an outsider. At the conference, these individuals, called “storytellers,” described challenges with “belonging” in college. Findings ways to overcome feelings of alienation led to their respective transformative experiences.

Three poignant examples:

Storyteller #1. An African-American woman reports being questioned by her professor (and academic advisor) as a freshman in college as to whether she was sure that she wanted to be in a particular science class. This experience comes after a similar high school experience in which her teacher specifically told her that she might not be capable of becoming an engineer. As a direct result of these interactions, she developed an attitude of, “I will show you.” She is now the STEM diversity coordinator for a selective university.

Storyteller #2. A young business executive reminisces about meeting his lifelong mentor while an undergraduate student in the mentor’s seminar. Each week, students wrote a paper for the class. Once a week, the professor posted the paper with the most grammatical errors on a screen for everyone to see (without identifying the author), so that students could correct the errors together. The storyteller says that each week, his paper was the one posted, and he was absolutely mortified. However, this “record” led the student to form a special relationship with this professor, which he still maintains today. He is now a writer for several well-known publications, including The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Huffington Post.

Storyteller #3. This student, currently a college junior, has felt marginalized on campus because virtually no one looks like him (at his small school, he indicates that less than 5% of students are Latino). He has difficulty relating to the majority of students, who have grown up with more lavish lifestyles, including vacations, attendance at independent schools, second homes, etc. Coming from a low-income background, he spent his free time helping his mother with housekeeping tasks in other people’s homes. He now works at his school’s admissions office, hoping to serve as an advocate for other first generation students.

In 2012, when we set out to understand various perspectives about higher education, we did not anticipate one striking finding: “belonging” would emerge as a major obstacle for students at every college and university in our study. Though half of our 40-question semi-structured interview focuses on academics, and the other half focus on campus life, broadly construed, students’ personal issues often emerge as the most important topic on their minds. Accordingly, we devised a coding scheme to capture student descriptions of belonging and/or alienation. Specifically, we parsed the topic into three main categories:

1. Academics: Do students feel supported, respected or challenged in their coursework? Do students express academic motivation, feelings of achievement, and/or a mastery of content? Or, do students describe feelings of isolation and minimal help in their academic pursuits?

2. Peer: Do students describe meaningful connections with peers? Do they express a sense of “fitting in” with the larger community? Or, do students indicate loneliness or detachment from others on campus?

3. Institution: Do students identify with the overall mission and spirit of the school? Or do they convey alienation or a lack of connectedness to the school?

Through this tripartite scheme, our team of coders can specify a sense of belonging to one area, and not to another. After reading each interview, we “score” students on a five-point scale, ranging from strong belonging to strong alienation, with “balanced” in the middle of the scale. In the scheme, there is a “N/A” option for coders, when we lack sufficient information to make a decision.

Consider the following statements from students, which indicate, respectively, strong belonging or strong alienation for each of the three categories (note that in coding, we have more contextual information on which to base our decision).


  • Strong Belonging: “That class [Psychology 101] itself was like one of my first college classes where I did a really amazing…and I’m like, ‘Oh, college is like my thing.’”
  • Strong Alienation: …I think that my self-perception of, of like not knowing…as much as everybody else, and feeling like because I came from a different place that I wasn’t supposed to be here.”


  • Strong Belonging: “I didn’t expect [the student body] to be as integrated as it is. I kinda expected it to be a little more cliquey, like athletes do their things and these people do their thing. But it’s a pretty integrated community, I think, so that’s something that’s definitely caught me by surprise for, I think, the better.”
  • Strong Alienation: “At times I found myself isolated and stagnate in conversations ’cause I can’t have the individual conversations I want ’cause nobody has the intellect for it.”


  • Strong Belonging: You know, to be honest, for the whole campus, I feel like [name of sport] is our biggest sport. We truly bring the whole campus together…Everyone celebrate[s]…we felt like one.”
  • Strong Alienation: “It feels like there’s one dominant culture. It feels like there’s, like, one overarching…way to be a college student. So…me [not] being with that is a little bit…was difficult.”

As interviewers, and coders, our job is to describe what we have observed and heard: the good, the bad, and the ambiguity of belonging and/or alienation. But as citizens who want to improve the quality of higher education, we are also eager to help students address difficulties and challenges.

On the surface, it clearly seems preferable to belong than to feel alienated. But my experience at the conference gave me a different perspective on whether it is okay, and maybe even helpful over the long haul, to experience a lack of belonging in a particular situation or context. Perhaps this kind of challenge, though initially difficult, can also push students to undergo a positive change, or transformation for good.

Consider the storytellers at the Remaking Education conference. Each of the three individuals cited the initial lack of connection—or even blatant alienation as motivation for mobilizing a “can do” attitude. In each case, the process of overcoming perceived marginalization, changed the shape of their work—respectively, promoting for diversity in STEM fields; or gaining a lifelong mentor; or becoming an advocate for newly enrolled students.

Certainly, we do not want students to experience pain. At the same time, as educators, parents, and friends, we should be careful not to coddle students so that they miss opportunities for growth and transformation.

Here are two possibilities: Schools could offer a town meeting—Stories of Transformation—featuring students who overcame a challenge in college. Such a forum might help students to see that they are not “alone” in their struggles; listening to others’ successes might provide motivation to persevere. (Our own school, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, hosts a similar event called “Double Take.”)

As another example, peer counselors, faculty, administrators, or residence hall advisors could facilitate periodic convenings open to students who want to talk about their own stories, and particular challenges they have faced and how they navigated them.

Both of these approaches help students to reflect, listen to others, and formulate their own action plans. Finding the right balance may not be easy. But helping students to see that sometimes, recognizing and confronting short-term problems, may actually be beneficial over the course of a career and, indeed, a lifetime.  

© 2018 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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