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Leading Thoughts

Embracing the importance of connection and community

We all have a role to play in helping students establish a sense of belonging.


This is the first of a series on the theme of “Belonging.”

Over Labour Day weekend, I found myself in a unique position: standing in line to register for student orientation at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, where my son Ivan is starting his second year. As we chatted with other students and their parents, it wasn’t long before the conversation turned to the perils of pandemic learning.

One student told us she had taken last year off because she knew that learning online wouldn’t work for her. Another shared that she had made the same decision as my son – transferring east from an Ontario university because it seemed like the state of the pandemic in Nova Scotia made it more realistic to expect consistent in-person learning and experiences.

The more students we talked with, the more the theme stayed the same: “Not being connected to other people last year had a huge negative impact on me.”

Like every parent of a university-aged child, I know that story well. It’s exactly what happened to my son.

Last fall, as COVID outbreaks forced campuses in Ontario to shut down, he sank beneath the weight of the isolation imposed by health protocols. The enthusiastic, engaged and outgoing kid I knew was replaced by an empty husk. The swagger and bounce were missing. The light had gone out. Only when he finally decided to follow in his older sister’s footsteps and enroll at StFX this fall did he begin to resemble himself again.

As the new academic year gets underway at universities across the country, I believe that understanding what students have been through in the last year offers a unique opportunity to rethink the university experience.

The pandemic underlined a basic fact about human nature: we thrive and excel when we feel a strong sense of belonging and connection to a community. What’s more, high performance requires a culture where inclusion, belonging and believing we matter are baked in.

In my experience, university leaders tend to think of our three main functions – academics, research and student affairs – as separate. In the past, it has been fairly common to believe that knowledge creation and dissemination are distinct from efforts to foster students’ sense that they matter and belong.

Now, informed by the events of the past year, we have an opportunity to be more intentional in moving toward a holistic and integrated view of what drives success, in our programs and for our students.

This is a moment to evolve beyond the silos that separate student affairs from academics and research. We have a chance to further explore how they are entwined. We can embrace that student connection isn’t someone else’s responsibility – it is all of ours. Community building isn’t something that happens outside of the classroom, lab or studio. It can and should happen right in the heart of the student experience.

When universities make connection and community a priority, students will thrive. And when we choose to focus on building relationships – inside and outside the classroom or lab – our academic and research programs are amplified. Why? Because students feel safe. They know it’s okay to take a risk, to be vulnerable, to put themselves out there and try something new.

Do you want to make your academic program exceptional? Your research agenda innovative? Your campus differentiated? Your students creative, courageous thinkers who don’t live in a bubble? Ensure students can connect.

So how do we do it?

Regardless of your role, if any part of your responsibilities impacts students, you can help to rethink and reshape the student experience. Here are some places to start.

  • Help students get to know each other. Find opportunities within your program for them to connect. Leave space for casual conversations. Allow them to introduce themselves and express their identities. Create the conditions for them to be vulnerable and authentic, to share their experiences, to ask questions and to be unsure.
  • Create cohorts. Organize opportunities within the learning and research programming for students to work together in small groups. Create communities of connection in which they feel a sense of belonging and know they matter to other people.
  • Be accessible and approachable. In your interactions with students, strive to be authentic and vulnerable. When you share yourself with them and they experience you as a person, not just an authority figure, you become approachable. This helps students feel comfortable taking the kinds of risks that are essential to learning and growth.
  • Be a community builder. Expand from seeing your role as a leader, disseminator of knowledge or administrator to a person responsible for the culture our students experience. The more connected students become, the more likely whatever file you are managing will continue to move toward excellence.

The link between connection and success, which the pandemic has brought to light so dramatically, is not abstract. It is visceral and highly personal. And it is evident in the lived experience of thousands of students like my son.

As we were saying goodbye and my wife and I were preparing to head home to Waterloo, Ivan and I shared a big, tight hug. I did a classic dad thing, whispering in his ear, “Study hard.” He whispered back, “Don’t worry, dad. I will. I think I am going to feel at home here.”

In that moment, he captured a wish in every student’s heart that they find a place to belong.

Ivan Joseph
Ivan Joseph is the vice-president of student affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University.
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