Everyone wants to feel like they belong to a group or community, but sometimes college students may feel like an outsider—a stranger in a strange land. First-generation college students and diverse students may feel especially isolated. Psychology studies have shown that for good student health, connection to others improves motivation, mental health and happiness.
For interesting research paper topics for your psychology or mental health class, consider exploring mental health news to uncover ways to develop a sense of belonging.
First-generation college students’ sense of belonging
Specific mental health issues of first-generation college students would make a good research paper topic. About 20 percent of first-year college students identify as first-generation. If they have lower income, they may have delayed entry into college, live off campus and have a part-time job along with attending classes. These students may feel stress transitioning to the new cultural environment of a college campus. Unfortunately, 43 percent of low-income, first-generation students leave college before getting a degree, 60 percent leave after the first year.
In the article “First-Generation Students’ Sense of Belonging, Mental Health, and Use of Counseling Services at Public Research Universities,” published in Journal of College Counseling, April 2, 2014, authors Michael J. Stebleton, Krista M. Soria, and Ronald L. Huesman Jr. found that first-generation students experience greater levels of depression and stress. The authors encourage students to seek on-campus mental health services from counselors and say that colleges need to do a better job of informing students of the mental health services that are available to the university community. The authors write, “The stronger the self-perceived sense of belonging to a campus or community, the greater the likelihood of success…It is increasingly important for them to feel comfortable accessing needed mental health and counseling services.”
Sense of belonging: as necessary as food and shelter
Karyn Hall, Ph.D., Director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, Texas, wrote in the article, “Create A Sense of Belonging,” in her blog, “Pieces of Mind” in Psychology Today, posted March 24, 2014, “A sense of belonging is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter. Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in coping with intensely painful emotions.”
Finding ways to belong can help ease the pain of loneliness. Hall says building a sense of belonging requires effort and practice. She suggests:
- Look for ways you are similar with others instead of focusing on ways you are different, such as age, religion, taste in music, etc.
- Share your differences with others.
- Accept others’ views and learn to open your mind to other ideas.
- Don’t complain (if you’re at a restaurant with friends and the food is bad!). The point of the gathering is to connect with friends.
- Don’t isolate yourself, or believe you are unworthy. No one is perfect; other people struggle too.
Diverse students’ sense of belonging
Another research paper topic is to discuss how diverse student populations may be especially susceptible to not feeling like they belong. In the 2012 book, “College Students’ Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students,” author Terrell L. Strayhorn defines a sense of belonging as the student’s perception of affiliation and identification with the university community. He also examines the levels of sense of belonging among Latino students, black students, gay men of color, STEM students and graduate students.
In their review of the book in Association for the Study of Higher Education, Eunyoung Kim and John P. Irwin describe Strayhorn’s thesis: “The book opens up discussions among researchers, administrators, student affairs educators, and students about the importance of sense of belonging in student persistence decisions, clearly indicating that all college campuses should work to become places of inclusion and awareness.”
What are some ways you try to create a sense of belonging at college?