A Strategy for Campus Belonging

Catherine Epstein describes the importance of building community through intellectual pursuits and how small, intensive learning communities can help overcome the divides on campuses today.

June 6, 2019
 
 
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Not long ago, I met Katy, a rising junior who is Latinx, over lunch at Amherst College. The meal was for the inaugural Amherst cohort of fellows for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, a long-standing program sponsored by the Mellon Foundation to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to attend graduate school and enter academe. Katy spoke excitedly about her research work, a project on literary censorship imposed on nuns in colonial Mexico. Without prompting, however, she also talked about how she and her cohort have built an intellectual community that supports each fellow.

Later in the conversation, Katy mentioned that she had been on a spring break trip for her class on the Puerto Rican diaspora. Class participants interviewed members of the Puerto Rican community in nearby Holyoke, Mass., and then met up with the interviewees’ relatives on the island. As a final project, the students made a documentary about the diaspora experience. Katy noted that she hadn’t known any of her fellow students well before taking the class. Now, however, she counts them among her close friends.

Finally, Katy spoke about a tutorial class, A Social History of the Spanish Language, which included just four students. She explained how the class hadn’t felt like her other classes; instead it was a weekly intellectual journey deeply shared among students and their professor.

To me, Katy is living proof of the promise of a residential liberal arts college. She is having a rich intellectual experience, fostered by face-to-face learning with faculty members and fellow students who come from a remarkable range of backgrounds. Meaningful and intensive group work and the social connectedness that comes from it are crucial to Katy’s academic career. Her experiences illustrate the power of how small, intensive learning communities can help overcome social and other divides on college campuses today.

At Amherst and other select liberal arts colleges, we face the challenge of creating a sense of campus belonging and community among a remarkably diverse student body. Some 45 percent of our students identify as domestic students of color, and another 9 percent are international. In addition, among our first-year class members who will become sophomores in the fall, 29 percent of students are Pell eligible. These and other students benefit from Amherst’s generous need-blind financial aid policies: we are the only liberal arts college that is need blind for all students, including international students, and that agrees to meet full demonstrated need.

But bringing such an amazing range of talented students to our campus isn’t enough. A growing body of evidence suggests that students must feel that they belong to the campus community in order to fully participate in educational opportunities. Embracing the goal of student belonging, however, can work against building a cohesive campus community. As Beverly Tatum reminds us in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? college students are often at a stage of development in which they need to affirm their identities; they need their own cafeteria tables or other dedicated space to bond among themselves.

At the same time -- and Tatum would agree with this notion -- campuses must prepare students to build connections beyond their affinity groups, campus organizations or athletic teams. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam challenged our nation to make a similar move: from social capital bonding (often characterized by exclusion) to social capital bridging. Only by working across social differences, he argued, will we able to address our great national and international challenges.

Learning communities, of course, are not new to college campuses, but they have long been recognized as an effective way to engage students and foster student retention. At Amherst, however, we are now leveraging intensive learning communities to bridge the campus divides that emerged as we diversified our student body. We’ve found that if students who share academic interests spend considerable time together, they will often forge strong personal connections.

For that reason, we have funded faculty-led trips to Costa Rica, England and Turkey, among other destinations. We have also developed or strengthened intensive group learning opportunities closer to home. We have a tutorial program in the humanities and humanistic social sciences in which students and their professor work together over the summer on a collaborative research project. Students have studied America’s death penalty and the history of British first aid during World War I, among other topics, and several co-authored books and articles have emerged from this program.

Our science laboratories offer the longest-standing example of professor-student research collaboration; each summer, dozens of students work full-time on faculty-led research teams. We also provide a wealth of cohort-based learning opportunities via our co-curriculum. Students can work together at our Book & Plow Farm, intern together at campus museums, research together at the Folger Shakespeare Library (owned by the college), participate together in design-thinking challenges, curate together digital exhibitions related to our upcoming bicentennial and explore career opportunities together on “treks” to major cities and regions known for particular industries.

Student testimonials about such opportunities are nothing short of extraordinary. I am particularly struck by how often students reserve special praise for the social connections forged through shared intellectual experiences. At a time when students nationwide express feelings of loneliness and isolation, our students are finding connection in academic endeavors. Students in our summer science research program, for example, note the intellectual and social benefits brought on by shared research work. As one student wrote, “A brief glimpse into the world of research has meant the world to me. It’s inspired me to jump on a graduate school track and has given me a chance to really get to know a professor and a small cadre of students that much better. I feel so much more confident in where I’m going. And I feel so much more comfortable at an institution that had been rather isolating up until this point.”

Faculty-led trips elicit some of the most effusive student comments. A student on the Istanbul trip, for example, reflected, “The opportunity to bond with my classmates and professors is also unlike anything else -- we are here, sharing in our collective awe at the experiences we’ve been having.” Another student on the same trip noted, “It was a rare and beautiful experience to have classmates that were not just invested in the material but also in the other classmates.” Similarly, a student who went to Costa Rica as part of a tropical biology course wrote, “The trip helped me find community among students studying biology and environmental studies. This class created an intimate setting through the two weeks we spent living together and having a small weekly class afterwards. I consider myself close friends with all of the people in the course, and have learned from their interests and experiences in a way that other related courses have not provided the opportunity to do.”

Fittingly for a course devoted to Wordsworth, students on a class trip to the poet’s home in Grasmere, England, came to feel the power of love as a lens on the world. As one student eloquently wrote, “This week ended up showing me how both purposes of the trip fit together. The manuscripts reflected the Wordsworths’ love of nature and other people, and I felt the impact of that love while looking at manuscripts and while trekking around the lakes. It got to me through a long chain of intermediaries: the love contained with the Wordsworths’ poetry was originally reflected in their writing, and then was preserved by later historians’ and curators’ labors of love, and finally appreciated by awestruck admirers such as myself. The chain of love, for others and the natural world, stretches from William, John and Dorothy through to Ernest de Selincourt, John Finch and Jeff Cowton -- and all the way to us.”

In the ideal residential liberal arts environment, students belong to a community given over to these inspiring kinds of love. At the risk of sounding idealistic, what could be more powerful than bridging campus divides through love?

Today, critics often question the efficacy of diversity initiatives that are divorced from students’ primary reasons for being in college. As we help students develop their intellectual lives -- that is, as we teach them how to think, not what to think -- we need strategies beyond “diversity training” to draw our campus community together. We cannot leave diversity work divorced from our primary academic endeavors; we should not separate it from our central academic mission. When we forge a sense of belonging and community through intellectual pursuits, we rely on the most fundamental task of the university: intellectual inquiry. We make use of what professors naturally do: teach and research. And we can do so in any academic discipline, from the humanities to the natural sciences.

In our experience at Amherst, intentionally exploiting the core strength of a college -- intellectual inquiry -- is one of the most effective strategies in fostering student belonging. What’s more, a dense network of such opportunities can help campuses bridge their larger divides. And perhaps most important, by empowering students to bridge differences and connect, we are empowering them with the skills to address the enormous social, political and environmental challenges facing the world into which they will graduate.

Bio

Catherine Epstein is dean of the faculty and Winkley Professor of History at Amherst College.

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