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  • Remaking Selves, Repositioning Selves, or Remaking Space:An Examination of Asian American College Students’ Processes of “Belonging”
  • Michelle Samura (bio)

The importance of “belonging” for college students has been well documented. According to an extensive body of research on college student development, students are more likely to succeed in college if they feel that they belong at their institution (Allen, Robbins, Casillas, & Oh, 2008; Astin, 1975, 1984; Berger, 1997; Braxton, Milem, & Sullivan, 2000; Braxton, Sullivan, & Johnson, 1997; Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2006; Maramba & Museus, 2012; Museus & Quaye, 2009; Strayhorn, 2012; Tinto, 1994). Students’ sense of belonging is closely related to their academic achievement, retention, engagement, satisfaction with student life, mental health, and overall well-being (Astin, 1993; Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Bowman, 2010; Hausmann, Schofield, & Woods, 2007; Hurtado & Carter, 2007; Johnson et al., 2007). Despite the importance of the concept for researchers and practitioners interested in understanding and improving college students’ experiences, little is known about how different students experience and understand belonging.

Moreover, even as research indicates that belonging is crucial for students of color, studies that examine how different groups experience belonging remain limited (Kuh et al., 2006; Lee & Davis, 2000; Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008; Mendoza-Denton, Downey, Purdie, Davis, & Peitrzak, 2002). Most of the research on belonging of students of color has focused on Black and Latino students (Lee & Davis, 2000). Only a few studies have examined Asian American students’ sense of belonging (Hsia, 1988; Lee & Davis, 2000; Museus & Maramba, 2010). Scholars who study Asian American college students have suggested that Asian Americans are awkwardly positioned as separate from other students of color vis-à-vis the model minority stereotype (Hsia, 1988; Lee & Davis, 2000). Furthermore, Asian Americans often are viewed as overrepresented on college campuses, yet they remain under-served by campus support programs and resources and overlooked by researchers. Many Asian Americans have gained access to higher education, but the ways in which they belong on campuses is unclear. Given their positionality, a focus on Asian American students’ experiences can provide greater insight into the complexities of college student belonging. In this article, I aim to rethink belonging—what it looks like and how students understand it—by examining how Asian American college students navigate and negotiate the campus. Through an understanding of Asian American students’ navigation and negotiation processes, we can gain insight into their processes of belonging.


Scholars have used a number of frameworks to study and explain the concept of belonging for college students. Three of the most widely [End Page 135] used frameworks for belonging are Bollen and Hoyle’s (1990) concept of perceived cohesion, Tinto’s (1994) model of integration, and Hurtado and Carter’s (1997) concept of sense of belonging. Bollen and Hoyle focused on the concept of perceived cohesion and defined it as encompassing “an individual’s sense of belonging to a particular group and his or her feeling of morale associated with membership in the group” (p. 482). By conceptualizing perceived cohesion as including a sense of belonging, they argued that scholars would be able to apply the concept of cohesion to groups in a variety of contexts, including higher education settings. Bollen and Hoyle’s three-item construct (“I feel a sense of belonging to . . .”; “I feel that I am a member of the . . . community”; “I see myself as part of the . . . community”) is frequently used to measure college students’ sense of belonging at a particular moment in time.

Tinto’s (1994) model of integration draws on Durkheim’s (1951) theory of social integration and posits that the more that students are integrated within their respective institutions’ academic and social structures, the more likely they will thrive in college and persist through graduation. Although Tinto’s theory is one of the most cited explanations for college student retention, this perspective has been criticized for placing the responsibility of integration on the student with little attention given to the responsibilities of the institution (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Kuh & Love, 2000; Nora, 2001; Rendon, Jaloma, & Nora, 2000; Tierney, 1992, 1999). In other words, according to Tinto’s theory, if a student leaves college, it is largely due to his or her inability to become...