The Weight and Benefits of Fostering Belonging in ResLife

“Belonging is the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group. It is when an individual can bring their authentic self to work. When employees feel like they don’t belong at work, their performance and their personal lives suffer.” 

Cornell University

Take a moment to reflect upon this definition of belonging. What words or phrases resonated the most?  For myself, it was the phrase, “lives suffer”. This phrase created a feeling of heaviness, or more so, great sadness for me because a consequence of not belonging is suffering in our work performance and in our personal lives. The very idea of someone that we know or love is suffering should evoke a level of urgency to fix or alleviate that pain.  I can’t imagine anyone purposely wanting someone to suffer at work or in their personal lives.

The work that we do in Residence Life and Housing is centered on community building and belonging.  And when I think of a resident, a team member, or even myself suffering, the task seems clear: make sure that our residents, team members and ourselves are not suffering.  On many of our campuses we have offices, departments, and programs designed to create opportunities for engagement which will contribute to a sense of belonging.

As an example,on my current campus the ratio of student staff to residents was significantly reduced in order to create an opportunity for each staff member to connect with their residents and to be a useful resource. Connecting with other humans feels good!  It helps you to feel like you matter. I know I do. On our campuses there are measures in place to emphasize the importance of community, connection, and belonging.  And while I know our role is to create this for our students, What about us? What do we do to create a sense of belonging for our professional staff?  I do not believe the need for belonging disappears once you complete your undergraduate studies.

After the last two years, we know that folx are leaving the field and I would wager that most have plans to never look back. There are many reasons that this is happening and, believe it or not, many of the issues and concerns predate COVID.  I would not dare assert that I have an answer or a remedy but I would invite you to consider what is in your sphere of control or influence to change or try.

Today, I want you to consider one thing you have control over: this idea of belonging.  Before COVID, and for many years, I wondered if I belonged in the field or in my department at the time.  And yes there were times when certain places held moments of misery.  Our jobs are difficult at times and that reality can create moments of questioning value and whether or not you are cared for in your professional space.  Ask yourself, are you or your team members suffering in your professional life?  Are you creating or enforcing practices in the department that are creating suffering?  Again, that’s really heavy right?

Go back up to the first paragraph and read the definition of belonging.  Ask yourself:

  • Are your staff able to bring their authentic selves to work?
  • Do they feel accepted?
  • Do they feel like they belong?
  • What ingroups and outgroups exist?
  • What are the things that you need to figure out before the new staff members show up?
  • Are there enough team builders and icebreakers in summer training?
  • Did you share all of the campus and community resources that can provide support and wellness? 

One of the things that has enhanced the feeling of  belonging for me at work and in the field is friendship.  Another is mentorship.  Another is being connected with folx who have things in common with me when I started a new job.  (For me, that was other Moms, learning about the churches in the area, and being connected with other folx of color.)  And finally, opportunities to share my experiences.  Friendship, mentorship, affinity groups, and sharing my experiences have created opportunities to believe and feel like I belong.

These are the things that I like to call my “web of support” or my “verizon network”.  Over the last 24 months these things, along with my faith, have helped me remember my value and my worth.  Many of my friendships were formed during my time as a live-in Residence Hall Director and also as an Assistant Director.  They have watched my children grow, they have eaten meals with me, co-presented with me, cried with me, and laughed with me.  There is a special connection and bond that happens when you spend your adult life taking care of other people’s children for a living. We see and go through a lot in our field and who better to process with than our co workers, or a therapist! As we go into this new season with the professional staff that we have, please think about what you can do to create belonging.  I realize that the idea that we may be creating conditions where folx are suffering, sounds harsh but that very well could be what is happening. Why take the risk?   

There is so much work to be done to move us, our field, forward and it will take time.  Today, I want to focus on something we can start doing right now.  Your assignment is to create places where folx can be their authentic selves, make lifelong friendships, find mentorship, all while completing the work that we each signed up for; serving students.

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