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After Adrienne’s first year on full scholarship at an Ivy League university, she just wanted to go home.
She knew she should be grateful, though she also knew grateful was a complicated and somehow inappropriate response to the placement she’d earned through hard work. She couldn’t put her finger on why she didn’t feel at ease at the school; she certainly wasn’t the only mixed-race first-year student from a lower-income family. She didn’t particularly want to return the following year, but her mother wouldn’t let her consider transfer options. This was a full ride at an Ivy. A Wonka golden ticket.
Now a senior, Adrienne says school is “fine,” with the enthusiasm of someone settling for an overcooked burger. Her mother can’t help wondering if she would have been better off somewhere else. “But who’s to say whether it was the school, or her shyness, or the fact that she’s majoring in the classics and philosophy—probably not the easiest place for a Black woman to feel like she belongs,” she said.
Psychologists call belonging a universal human need, a critical component of wellbeing and success in all arenas of our lives—academically, professionally, socially, and so on. When a student struggles to understand course material, there are visible red flags, and any number of pragmatic supports. When a student struggles to connect to a place and thrive, vague euphemisms don’t really flag a solution. It wasn’t a good fit. Things didn’t resonate. It was fine.
For his 2019 book The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us, journalist Paul Tough looked at the role of elite colleges in economic mobility for low-income students. And then he examined the interventions that haven’t quite succeeded in getting them to go, even if they very likely could have been accepted with a great aid package. And then, importantly, to stay.
One of the most impactful examples Tough highlights is the University of Texas, where student retention and four-year graduation rates had been an area in need of improvement. UT’s efforts were initiated in 2011 by then-president William Powers, Jr., whose graduation task force produced a report “that showed the institution to be deeply out of balance.” It illustrated significant gaps in retention and graduation rates between different demographic groups on the Austin campus: the students whose families had higher incomes were mostly graduating on time, and the kids from lower-income families mostly weren’t. Thirty percent of first-generation students at UT dropped out or were dismissed before they could complete their degree.
Chemistry professor David Laude dedicated himself to raising graduation rates among Pell-eligible students. His approach: introducing multiple programs to orient freshmen, provide summer supports, expand mental health services, and customize tutoring.
“Laude’s kitchen-sink approach did make a difference for students at the University of Texas—and the evidence for its success comes not just in the stories of individual students. The data support it, too,” Tough wrote. “Those campus-wide four-year graduation rates were the numbers that led the press releases and earned headlines at UT in 2017 and 2018. But what made David Laude proudest was the fact that the biggest gains in UT’s four-year graduation rate came among the categories of students whose rates were the lowest. Pell-eligible students at UT improved their four-year graduation rate from 40 percent in 2012 to 61 percent in 2018.”
By 2023, the rates had soared to 75 percent. Dr. Laude’s student success initiatives were based in part on community-building, which he found to be a critical component for those who experience “belonging anxiety.” Schools trying to understand troubling retention statistics — particularly in under-represented populations, lower-income families, and first-generation students — typically look to a wide range of data while reading between the lines of SATS and GPAs. They may be equally well served by asking, “What do we have in place to make all students feel like they belong?”
Belonging by Design
Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, more casually known as the d.school, is no stranger to applying design thinking to solve problems that, a generation ago, might have been called intangible, squishy. In terms of design, problems refer to challenges that get in the way of products, services, and systems meeting people’s needs. Those needs could be building anything from better public policy to a more effective vegetable peeler. At the d.school today, it can also be the engineering of spaces, events, and practices that are better designed to evoke a sense of belonging.
Susie Wise is an educator at the d.school who specializes in designing equity into the educational and social sectors. When the school decided to roll out a series of books on design insights and creative approaches—small inspirational tomes like Drawing on Courage and Creative Hustle—Wise was asked to contribute Design for Belonging. Published in April 2022, it is a guide to using the tools of design to create greater inclusion within groups of people in just about any setting, including campuses and classrooms.
“It was written for anyone hosting a community to show that belonging is something you can think about no matter what you’re creating. It was also meant to be provocative for designers, who I think have responsibility to think about whether their systems create more belonging, or inadvertently creating othering,” she says. “Nowadays it’s very normal in the design space to think about the environmental impact of something you’re creating. So part of my effort was to remind designers that a belonging lens is actually a really important one to think about, and particularly for folks who work on diversity, equity, and inclusion and are feeling stuck.”
Wise is fully aware that belonging is a feeling, and that you can’t design a feeling. But, she says, you can ask people to think back on the environments and circumstances where they’ve felt most welcome, and drill down into what contributed to it. She’s also well aware that you can’t design away exclusionary behavior. However, you can consciously design environments that lay the groundwork for inclusion.
In her book, Wise identified two umbrella categories of opportunity for inclusiveness. The first is being attuned to moments of potential belonging (or not) – namely, key times when something begins, ends, or is changing in a community. These include some predictable moments, like the way an entrance is made into a room or event, with either a welcoming greeting and signage, or a physical barrier or checking of credentials, a sort of “bouncer” effect. The way conclusions and exits are handled can also leave a positive or negative impression, with someone feeling either valued or uncomfortable.
“Think about the difference it makes when you are made to feel awkward or judged for having to leave a class or event early. Now imagine if the professor or moderator mentioned at the outset that if attendees had to leave before the end – because let’s face it, people often have good reason – they can find the materials in a certain place online and are welcome to drop by their office at another time,” said a chemistry professor in the University of California system. “I mean, I’ve been to yoga classes where you’re given the hairy eyeball for having to slink out early. And I’ve been to others where the instructor says, ‘If you have to leave early, please be sure to give yourself a little stretch first and a moment of Savasana.’ What a difference it makes, offering up front that you’re trusting the person’s reasons for doing what they’re doing.”
The list also includes subtler moments that can fly under the radar, such as “code switching.” This is when people have different ways of speaking and behaving in different groups – it could be language, or dialect, a looser bearing, or humor – and is a marker of belonging to more than one culture. When and how it’s used can either include or exclude someone—signaling familiarity and identification, or otherness.
“As a moment of belonging, code switching can be both a powerful resource and an added weight to bear, and is likely experienced as both at times,” Wise writes. “By seeking to notice and understand code switching in your community, you effectively give voice to the many groups and subgroups that are part of people’s identity. This is a huge win for belonging.”
Key moments of tension can also serve as an opportunity for positive impact, like instances of disagreement. For someone to dare to speak up in dissent in a community, they risk being ostracized. But if they feel confident of their position, and they remain included and accepted even while introducing conflict, and it’s a strong indicator of belonging.
“This was one example of belonging in the student journey Susie described that really stuck with me,” said Kate Canales, chair of the department of design at the University of Texas at Austin. While working on research and writing for the book, Wise spent time in a “microresidency” in Canales’ department conducting workshops with students and faculty, both collecting information and sharing the principles of her research. “She said a part of belonging was being able to dissent. That if you belong in a community, and feel accepted and valued, you’re able to disagree with that community without being expelled. Since so much of higher education has hidden power and hierarchy, it was very relevant to many who heard her. You could see people thinking, ‘Oh, okay, we really need to rethink the way we perceive certain things.’”
The second umbrella category of opportunity for belonging is one Wise calls “levers of design,” tools you can use to make it easier to move toward your goal. The trick is creating concrete experiences, environments, modes of engagement, or even tangible objects (such as food, clothing, and devices that have value or meaning to the group). These are things you use, circumstances you manipulate – in the language of design, levers you push – to create a desired effect.
The use and architecture of shared space is a critical one. Wise uses the example of a skateboard park to illustrate the many ways the ramps and seating offer a multitude of opportunities to enter, watch, and participate in the space as an insider. Sensory playgrounds are another example of public space designed with accessibility in mind for children sensitive to overload. For educational or professional environments, space designed for belonging could include moveable furniture and walls, lighting options that allow for dimming clusters, bright overheads, and seating near windows and natural light; areas conducive to talking, tables useful for spreading out work, and armchairs that invite more ease and relaxation. Other design features could include media and signage that can be customized, and changeable boards that allow for leaving behind personalized traces of ideas.
“Our design department is one of the new tenants in an old historic building that’s been restored after being vacant on campus for like 40 years. So we were a huge contributor to the design process, and we’ve let the student experience dominate the way it’s set up to behave around collaboration,” says Canales. The resulting space for the design school is at the furthest extreme from, say, a shushed law library. “We mostly have open flexible spaces where everything is movable and the tabletops are butcher block work surfaces, so there’s permission to use your hot glue gun or whatever else you want to do. It really looks and feels different from other spaces of higher education anddispenses with the formality and makes it accessible and welcoming to use the square footage the way you’d like.”
Levers of design might have elements of levity, but don’t mistake them for gimmicks. Like most aspects of design for belonging, they are about authentic connection that makes its users feel understood and at home rather than put off by structures and systems that are distracting reminders of “otherness.”
“I use the book to help people who are training to become teachers so they can think of moments and levers to increase the sense of belonging in their classrooms. That’s not something enough secondary teachers think a lot about—it’s more associated with elementary—but these kids desperately need connection. And many teachers don’t see it as part of their job to connect kids,” says Nora Wynne, an instructor of the secondary education program at Cal Poly Humboldt and a learning specialist at the Humboldt County Office of Education.
Wynne brought Wise and her book to classes, conferences, and workshops, and led book groups with administrators, faculty, and parents. “No one’s saying this is a brand new or revolutionary idea. They’re saying, ‘Oh my God, of course.’”
At Texas Christian University, Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado works as the chief inclusion officer, and is always looking for ways to move beyond the typical spectrum of DEI matters. “I’d had exposure to design thinking previously, and I thought, ‘These ideas are low-hanging fruit, some real grist to make an impact on campus.’ I want to get past the lip service to have more meaning,” he says.
When he read Wise’s book, he immediately saw the practical application of the stories and ideas for the institution, which recently hired a new president.
“We have a mechanism for data collection, and we are already seeing an uptick in people’s reported belonging,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. He calls the book’s reception at TCU a tremendous win. “HR, my department, and the president are all supporting taking a deep dive on liberatory design. For me, that’s hitting the triple word score in Scrabble.”
For students, particularly those like Adrienne whose marginalized identities make them vulnerable to feeling isolated, Wise’s most salient piece of advice may be about the way belonging is perceived.
“In a time of difficulty, one of the first things you might do is question your belonging,” said Wise. “But instead of questioning your belonging, you can question the resources to help you — what are they, where are they, who are they? How can I talk to my professors? So it becomes solution-oriented, rather than a first reaction of parachuting out of a place because you assume you don’t belong there.”