Creating a culture of belonging at your college

Kelly Hughes
Kelly Hughes

September 16, 2021

For many students, the journey to and through college can be filled with emotional challenges. When you factor in the additional stressors caused by the pandemic, it’s easy for students to feel lost or overwhelmed. 

With students facing new routines, exploring their freedom, and handling external pressures, the higher education experience can be fertile ground for mental health issues. According to the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health International College Student Initiative, approximately 35% of college freshmen report symptoms consistent with a diagnosable mental health disorder.

So how can you help the students who are struggling at your school? Mainstay’s latest guide, “How to define student engagement at your college,” explores the connection between belonging and mental health. The guide also includes key questions and considerations to direct your conversations with other higher education leaders, so you can collaboratively define student engagement at your school in a way that empowers you to support students throughout their entire journey.

How belonging impacts mental health 

Recently, researchers and institutions have begun to focus more on how the concepts of belonging and engagement are interconnected, and how they impact mental health. One such study found that traditionally underrepresented students (those from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college-goers, and students of color) report less of a sense of belonging than continuing-generation students or white students at four-year institutions. These feelings can directly impact a student’s ability to adapt to changes and succeed in the face of adversity. Fostering a sense of belonging at your institution can drive positive student outcomes related to academics and engagement — in addition to overall health and well-being.

Another study focused on the concept of ‘grit,’ shows that students who persist to their sophomore year are far more likely to complete a degree. That means getting students through any difficulties they may encounter in their first year is imperative. For many traditionally underrepresented students, these challenges may be amplified. Which is why schools need to place an increased emphasis on belonging as the critical narrative around equity and racial justice becomes increasingly pronounced.

Help students feel heard and understood through engagement

Students are often motivated by interactions with peers, instructors, counselors, coaches — both in and out of the classroom. When these interactions are frequent and meaningful, they lead to deep connections that result in an overall sense of belonging and the feeling of being known, respected, and included. When students feel heard and understood in this way, they are more likely to open up about their own emotions, fears, and anxieties. 

Providing an empathetic response at critical moments can have a powerful impact. Research suggests that when compassionate support is delivered through technology, it can be just as effective as in-person engagement. In this way, behaviorally intelligent chatbots that provide personalized, conversational engagement can effectively expand an institution’s ability to students. And because behaviorally intelligent chatbots automate these interactions, they enable schools to drive meaningful engagement at scale.

Engage with empathy

How can higher education institutions build strong campus communities to welcome students into the fold and create a sense of belonging from the start? Actively listening to students and engaging in transparent, empathetic conversations is a great place to begin. 

“Understanding the priorities and challenges of each student is not an easy task, even under the best of circumstances. It is even more difficult — and important — during a pandemic,” said Tim Renick, Senior Vice President for Student Success at Georgia State University. “The question is how can institutions learn effectively and in real-time what their students are experiencing and thinking?”

Fortunately, emerging technology has made it possible for institutions to actively respond to students’ thoughts, concerns, perceptions, and insights in ways that were never possible before. For example, many institutions are using behaviorally intelligent chatbots to expand students’ support networks and boost engagement and mental health. Here are some of the ways they’re doing it:

  • Speak their language. Student engagement technology has progressed far beyond the simple question-and-answer format of yesterday. Today’s behaviorally intelligent chatbots effectively deliver on individual preferences and expectations while putting students at ease with familiar and culturally relevant linguistic patterns. Students know that they’re chatting with a bot instead of a human, but the bot’s conversational patterns, response times, and helpful, empathetic tone make it feel like that of a trusted friend — opening the door for meaningful conversations.
  • Tackle tough topics. Some students are more comfortable communicating their real feelings to a supportive, unbiased party (like a chatbot) than to a human. After rolling out a series of highly targeted text message campaigns during the pandemic, Austin Peay State University discovered that text messaging gave students a safe, judgment-free way to “break up” with the school when they decided not to enroll. This approach also provided a safe space for the university to follow up and learn why the students made this decision. If sensitive information (such as mental health concerns) emerges during these conversations, they are automatically routed to trained experts who can provide one-on-one support in real time.
  • Factor background and identity into the equation. By employing behaviorally intelligent chatbots to help students meet key deadlines and complete critical tasks, Georgia State University boosted FAFSA completion and registration rates by three percentage points in the first year. This approach worked particularly well with first-generation and Pell-receiving students, who sent 9.4% and 31.7% more messages to their chatbot on average.
  • Check-in during times of uncertainty. During tumultuous times, such as the onset of COVID-19 and the unsettling events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, many of our partner institutions used Mainstay’s behaviorally intelligent chatbots to proactively check in with their students, better understand their needs and concerns, and provide around-the-clock support.

Make mental health a priority

By cultivating an environment that prioritizes engagement and inclusion, you can foster a culture of belonging and overall wellbeing for your students. This type of support has a meaningful impact on mental health and overall success throughout the academic journey and beyond. Mainstay’s guide, How to define student engagement at your college, is a useful handbook for navigating important conversations with other higher education leaders about the best ways to support students’ mental health at your institution. 


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