Cultivating a Sense of Belonging for Graduate Students

Equity and social justice are key, argue Jaye Sablan and Bill Mahoney.

August 8, 2022
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During the coming months, graduate departments will welcome new and returning masters and doctoral students to their campuses with online and in-person orientations and socials. At our institution, student services staff that coordinate such events will reach out to our student affairs team for consultation about strategies that might instill a sense of belonging among their students. This includes underrepresented and minoritized students who are first-gen, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), women and femme-identified, LGBTQ2S+, and international (including individuals whose identities lie at the intersections of those identities and more). We argue that equity and social justice are key to cultivating a sense of belonging for students earning advanced degrees.

Royel M. Johnson defines a student's sense of belonging as "the extent to which one feels cared about, accepted, respected, valued by and important to their campus community." While Johnson's work focuses on students at the undergraduate level, student affairs practitioners that support the success of graduate and professional students have offered similar perspectives. Johnson further asserts that until colleges and universities develop long-term, sustained efforts to dismantle systemic oppressions -- including anti-blackness and racism, settler colonialism, sexism, cissexism, ableism and more -- a sense of belonging will not be felt equitably among all students. As student affairs professionals at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), we wholeheartedly agree with his view and also urge institutions to recognize the following truths.

Representational diversity is not enough. Minoritized graduate students will never feel a sense of connection to their departments -- and, by extension, PWIs at large -- if they continue to experience daily microaggressions, harassment or discrimination. This has already been put forth by student activists and scholars who research racism and inter-related oppressions across higher education. While increasing the numbers of underrepresented student populations in graduate education is important, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

Transformative, social change in higher education must occur from individual to structural levels. Here are a few resources that offer perspectives, pathways and guidance:

Mental health and belonging are connected. As we have shared in a previous essay, graduate school is supposed to be challenging and provide students with opportunities for academic and professional growth rather than being a toxic or oppressive environment. Yet the workload and responsibilities of graduate student life are stressful and can lead to overwhelming anxiety and depression if left unchecked.

In general, graduate students are six times more likely to exhibit mental health concerns relative to their age-matched peers outside of the academy. Furthermore, BIPOC  and LGBTQ2S+ graduate students experience higher rates of depression and anxiety -- not because they lack the intelligence, skills or competencies to earn advanced degrees, but because they must deal with a range of inequities within their home institutions. National organizations are already considering ways to support the mental health and well-being of underrepresented graduate students, while also holding colleges and universities accountable for dismantling white supremacy and racism.

Additionally, while higher education institutions must work to undo systems of oppression with long-term practices and policies grounded in equity, it's also important for underserved students to connect with affinity groups in order to cultivate a sense of belonging. Identity-based organizations offer a safe haven, build and strengthen community, and provide intellectual and professional development opportunities. Some examples include:

Referrals to student resources can deflect accountability. Referring minoritized and marginalized graduate students to affinity groups, identity-based resource centers, and culturally competent staff and faculty is vital -- but the work doesn't stop there. Without sustained, iterative action and change throughout our classrooms, labs, offices and campus grounds, marginalized graduate students will continue to enter learning and work environments that remain unwelcoming and unsafe.

Further, diversity, equity and inclusion work should not fall solely on the shoulders of a handful of underrepresented students, staff and faculty at PWIs. Roy Ziegelstein and Deidra Crews refer to this institutional practice of deferral as the "majority subsidy," stating, "When we farm out diversity … to a small group, we not only tax them, but we also give a subsidy to the people who are not in those groups who should be owning [anti-oppression work]."

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A sense of belonging is a social justice issue that goes far beyond the provision of informational tools and events that prepare students for the intellectual and professional rigors of graduate school. It will require nonperformative, long-term action by staff, faculty and leaders in positions of power so that minoritized graduate students can be their whole, authentic selves in their departments and institutions. Safer, inclusive and equitable campus climates ensure that graduate students can shift from surviving to thriving.

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Jaye Sablan (Chamoru, first-gen, she/her) is assistant director for the Office of Graduate Student Affairs at the University of Washington. She centers equity and social justice in her work to create holistic graduate student services on topics related to community-building, wellness and professional development. She is co-editor with Jane Van Galen, of Amplified Voices, Intersecting Identities: First-Gen PhDs Navigating Institutional Power: Volumes 1 and 2 (Brill Sense 2020). Bill Mahoney (he/him) is associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology and director of the molecular medicine and mechanisms of disease (M3D) Ph.D. program, as well as associate dean for graduate student and postdoctoral affairs, at the university. His office provides support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, with particular investments in first-gen and international graduate students, general wellness, and career and professional development. He is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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