Do you ever wonder how your student will make the most of the college experience you’ve been saving for?

You’ve likely saved for years with the goal that they will take full advantage of the academic opportunities college offers. You prepared for it. Now it’s time to prepare them. And the good news is, you are well positioned to coach your student in developing an academic sense of belonging. You can start now through conversation and anticipation.

First, what do I mean by academic sense of belonging? An academic sense of belonging is, for our purposes here, an amalgamation of psychosocial experiences that have been found to increase student success in college. Thriving in college, which supports higher grades and intent to persist to a degree, involves meaningful student-faculty interaction, cognitive engagement in learning, and the ability to learn how to learn in any given class. Students are also said to be more academically engaged when they can identify other students in a class with whom to study, and when they perceive that instructors believe they can produce quality work. A sense of belonging at college in general has been found to benefit student outcomes in classes and overall success.

What this looks like, practically, will manifest differently for different students. Students sometimes only need to connect with one professor or teaching assistant in a meaningful way to feel they’ve found a sense of place academically. Other students cultivate a variety of connections with professors and peers. Still other students benefit from talking with a student success coach or advisor to hone the ways they think about their specific plan for earning a degree.

It’s worth noting that students’ choice of institution, academic major, and extracurricular experiences will also influence their academic sense of belonging. Academic majors within colleges and universities typically function like states within the republic. They are critically connected, but majors sometimes run their own programs or have separate amenities. The people and programs they encounter within their academic majors may form a significant part of your student’s academic sense of belonging. But for other students, their academic sense of belonging will be found in an organization, like the student newspaper, or among friends in campus housing who study together.

Regardless of its form, an academic sense of belonging can be one of the most important factors in making the most of college. It’s part of the value college offers.

Thus, there are three things you can do now to help your student anticipate an academic sense of belonging in college:

  1. Prepare your student to connect with faculty and staff. Suggest that your student do an informational interview with a teacher or principle at their current school. This is an intentional conversation where they ask about the person’s professional experience. These kinds of conversations are good practice for engaging with faculty and staff.
  2. Debrief academic tasks with your student. Ask your student to describe the process they used to solve a class-related problem or to complete an assignment. When they reflect on the steps they used, they are strengthening their ability to manage their metacognition—the ability to think about how we think and learn.
  3. Encourage your student to be self-led in their learning. Recommend they reflect on ways they’ve self-led in learning so far. How did they set a good tone for learning in a class with a teacher? How did they connect with peers? How can they start college classes in a way such that it won’t feel weird to ask others to study before midterms?

Otherwise, if you want to take a more casual approach, talk to your student about the “why” and the “who” they can anticipate at college. Specifically, talk about the “why” that motivates them to enroll in a particular university and academic major. Also explore with them on the university’s website what resources will be available to them when they arrive and how they can most effectively connect with these people and programs.

About Jennifer Tharp, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Tharp is an alumna of Azusa Pacific University where she earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education. Dr. Tharp teaches at the graduate level and consults nationally in the area of student success. Visit Dr. Jennifer Tharp's website.