Notes on belonging

I moved a lot growing up. I was scooped up and dropped into seven new schools in 12 years. I got to know people in different states and became proficient at the “new kid” routine. I always felt like I had friends, but I never felt like I belonged to any one community. That was, of course, until summer camp. At camp, I met people who encouraged me to try new things, validated my passions and most importantly made me feel like I belonged to something bigger than myself. It was truly a definitive experience for me.

So, who am I and why am I sharing this with you? My name is Elaine Harvey and I am the recently hired Director of Student Engagement and Persistence. I will be penning this column in hopes of collectively exploring what it means to belong at Northern Vermont University-Johnson. Recently, the University was awarded a Title III federal five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to boost student retention. This $1.8 million grant supports measures to enhance student success through retention and graduation. Faculty and staff from across campus have come together to support the execution of this grant and they are coincidentally all committed to fostering a sense of belonging for each of our students. Professors Kathleen Brinegar and Tara Thacker, Director of First Year Experience Margo Warden, Associate Dean of Students Michele Whitmore, Director of Advising, Sara Kinerson, Academic and Study Away Advisor Brady Rainville and more are all working to implement Title III programming and initiatives for this campus. This network of individuals is here to help each of you belong.

In reality, I could have chosen another lens through which to examine the impact of the Title III grant on campus. I chose belonging because research has proven a strong correlation between belonging, or the feeling that one is respected and valued in a given context, and motivation, engagement, resilience and success. When we feel like we matter; when we feel like we understand how we fit into the larger context of our community, we are stronger.

Communities that foster a sense of belonging amongst their members don’t just happen. They are the product of many individual actions and a shared set of values that drive the collective whole towards a shared sense of belonging. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is one way to belong to a community. Rather, it means that we foster an environment where belonging is prioritized. When you look at it inversely, it is easy to see how difficult existing in a community in which you do not belong can feel.

We’ve all experienced what it feels like to be on the fringe or outright excluded from a community and it hurts. I’m sure too, that we’ve all been part of othering a group or individual because we thought they didn’t fit into our community as well. Sometimes we do it subconsciously, or sometimes we do it because we are protective of what is ours, but I’m here to challenge us to err on the side of opening our spaces for each other more often than not, creating spaces for people to join something we’ve already established.

In between this issue of the Basement Medicine and the next, I want to challenge our students, faculty and staff to focus on one action that fosters a sense of belonging within your chosen communities. Since it is early yet in the semester, maybe you can rotate seats in class or lab to get to know more of your classmates. As an instructor, you could share some lesser known facts about yourself as a non-traditional way to connect with your class. In the dining hall, you and a friend could make a point to ask a Sodexo employee about themselves. If you commute to campus, maybe there are others that travel the same roads you do; is there room for carpooling? These small acts don’t need to take up your whole day. In fact, my point is that these communal gifts repeated, will build a strong foundation for us all to stand taller on.

As my part of this challenge I’ve thrown out, I’d like to personally invite each and every person reading this to stop by my office; I’m between Dewey 132 and the Veterans Center. I’d love to connect with you.