- College Students' Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students by Terrell L. Strayhorn
Student persistence and retention have been the chief concern of virtually all higher education institutions over the last several decades, resulting in an abundance of theoretical models of persistence [End Page 119] and retention initiatives on college campuses across the country. Critics acknowledge Vincent Tinto's (1993) pioneering work on a theoretical model of student retention while at the same time questioning the ambiguity of the concept of "integration" and the application of Tinto's theory to students of color.
In response to the shortcomings of earlier theories like this one, recent work has paid more attention to "sense of belonging," which Terrell L. Strayhorn defines as the student's perception of affiliation and identification with the university community. Until now, extant literature has lacked a theoretical conceptualization of sense of belonging, as well as systematic and empirical testing of levels of sense of belonging among students. Strayhorn's College Students' Sense of Belonging: A Key to Educational Success for All Students is a commendable effort to fill such a critical void in the persistence/retention literature.
Strayhorn's text is organized into two parts. Part 1 consists of three chapters that provide an introduction to the research and an inclusive analysis of literature on sense of belonging and conceptual guidance. The following seven chapters, Part 2, are aimed at specifically illustrating how he used the theoretical construct of sense of belonging in his own empirical research on diverse student populations including Latinos, gays, STEM students, Black male students, graduate students, and first-year students of color. In his introduction, Strayhorn comments that he wrote this book because he often noticed how frequently research data identified "fitting in" or "sense of belonging" as the key to staying in college.
He begins all of his chapters with an epigraph. The quotation for Chapter 1 quotes psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs to suggest that "belongingness" is essential to one's individual growth as a person and existence within a community. Strayhorn comments on his own experiences growing up as a Black male in predominantly White institutions of higher education and talks about how President Obama's "Back-to-School Address" made it clear that the President had a similar history. He contends that the President's commentary provides the "backdrop" for his book (p. 1).
In Chapter 2, Strayhorn carefully defines "sense of belonging" by providing a thorough review of literature on the concept. He points out that a sense of belonging is a basic human need located within Maslow's framework, and organizes his discussion of sense of belonging into three categories: "belongingness as a concept, circumstances that engender (or thwart) belonging, and the relation between belonging and other outcomes or behaviors" (p. 11). The concept of belonging becomes the key to a person's sense of self and the feeling that his or her efforts are valued, both of which in turn impact student persistence and success in college. Conversely, Strayhorn quotes Robert S. Weiss's observation that "an absence of sense of belonging leads to decreased or diminished interest and engagement in ordinary life activities" (p. 9).
In Chapter 3, Strayhorn builds a conceptual model for sense of belonging by outlining its core conceptual elements. They include a sense of belonging as a basic human need, a fundamental motive to drive human behavior, as well as a discussion of its importance in certain contexts and among certain populations, its relatedness to mattering, its relationship with social identities, its association with positive outcomes, and the fluidity and dynamics of perceived belongingness, which depends on time, context, and circumstances. Strayhorn's conceptual model again draws on Maslow's hierarchy to keenly point out that students' fundamental needs and motivations (physiological necessities, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization) depend on social spaces and the college environment, which in turn lead to outcomes that can...