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  • Marginality and Mattering of Students With Disabilities at a Jesuit University
  • J. Mark Pousson (bio) and Mina Sagan (bio)

Sense of belonging in college students with and without disabilities has been linked to their academic success, persistence, and psychological adjustment (Cole et al., 2020; Strayhorn, 2019). What fuels their sense of belonging are friendships, social acceptance of peers, and positive relationships with faculty (Pittman & Richmond, 2008; Strayhorn, 2019). Inherent in the experience of belonging is the sense that one matters to others; in regard to college students this sense of mattering is extended to the campus community consisting of faculty, staff, and peers (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981; Strayhorn, 2019). When individuals question their belonging or mattering, they feel marginalized; this can negatively impact a student's academic success, persistence to degree, and mental health (Flett et al., 2019).

While marginality can be perceived as transitory, it can also refer to a permanent condition. Individuals may experience being in two cultures, each of which determines its marginal groups and which of these are visible or of value (Schlossberg, 1989). College students with invisible disabilities may struggle with the expectation of being a typical college student while attached with the label of being a person with a disability who has to prove their disability status to receive accommodations (Hong, 2015; Trybus et al., 2019).

College students with and without disabilities who attend Jesuit colleges and universities are stakeholders in a centuries-old tradition of Catholic education that was designed not only to educate but to form the moral character of its students complemented by "conscience and a compassionate concern for others beyond oneself" (McCallum & Horian, 2013, p. 41). While there has been research on perceptions of mattering, belonging, and the barriers experienced by college students with disabilities, there appears to be a lack of research on these experiences by Jesuit college students with disabilities (Flett et al., 2019; Hong, 2015; Vaccaro et al., 2015). With [End Page 362] the paucity of research in this area, we sought to answer the following question: How do students with invisible disabilities at a Jesuit university experience mattering?


Rosenberg and McCullough (1981) addressed four aspects of mattering: attention (being noticed by someone), importance (a belief of being cared for by another person), ego-extension (a sense someone experiences pride in an individual's actions and can empathize with their failures), and dependence (a sense of being needed). Schlossberg (1989) expanded the mattering research of Rosenberg and McCullough by adding another aspect: appreciation (a sense others appreciate an individual's contributions). Marginality, on the other hand, is experienced as a sense of lacking full membership within a social system, and since it can lead to depression and self-consciousness, marginality can have an adverse effect on students' academic performance and learning ability (Flett et al., 2019; Schlossberg, 1989).

A contributing societal factor that can challenge sense of mattering for college students with invisible disabilities is ableism, a system of oppression that labels individuals with disabilities as "inferior and . . . as other" (Liebowitz, 2017, p. 153). A common mechanism that perpetuates ableism is the use of microagressions, daily interactions that maintain inequalities against marginalized individuals. College students with invisible disabilities may be the recipients of either microagressions directly or indirectly since they may not be perceived as being part of the disability community. A by-product of prolonged exposure to microagressions for college students with invisible disabilities could be internalized ableism whereby they internalize the inferior messages from society or daily interactions with others (Kattari et al., 2018).

The Jesuit approach to education begins with cura personalis, translated caring for the whole person or education of the whole person for the purpose of service to and "transformation of society" (McCallum & Horian, 2013, p. 4). While other value-based postsecondary institutions focus education on forming the intellect and vocational skills, the Jesuit education forms the intellect and the "affective and moral sensibilities of the heart" (McCallum & Horian, 2013, p. 4). A resource to assist student affairs professionals in incorporating these components within the cocurricular landscape of Jesuit universities is Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities, a guide that formalizes student affairs divisions' contribution...