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Tonjala Eaton, Lansing Community College

Tonjala Eaton.jpgWhen students do not feel a strong connection to the institution, they often depart before completing their goals. Tinto (1993) categorizes the differences between departures as institutional and systematic. Students transferring to other colleges and/or universities is referred to as institutional; systematic departure occurs when a student decides that college is not a good fit and leaves the sector completely. Although there are many factors that determine if a student will persist or depart, the focus here is on discussing the value of students experiencing a connection to faculty, staff, and other students. A student’s inability to become socially integrated into the campus community can lead to both institutional and systematic departure (Tinto, 1993).  

Social integration can occur through several different types of student interactions, including academic advising, thereby increasing a student's sense of belonging. Strayhorn (2019) defines belonging as a student's perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, and the experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to the campus community or others on campus such as faculty, staff, and peers. Belonging is heavily based on perceptions and an individual’s understanding of an experience. Furthermore, belonging is highly social and relationship dependent. Belonging is unlikely in the absence of relationships.

Students’ relationships with their academic advisor is one where belonging can develop. Advisors address students’ concerns and assist them with navigating the institution and developing academic and career plans (Hovland, 1997). Moreover, advising sessions have the potential to be opportunities for students to express their most authentic selves. A true place of belonging allows all people to feel that they can bring their true selves to a place. Imagine an educational environment where a student feels that they can bring their true selves to the environment. This type of educational environment is void of shame related to academic under-preparedness or bias, and is an environment in which students feel supported as they evolve personally and academically to new levels of growth.

Why Is Belonging Important for Black Male Students?

While this type of setting is beneficial to all students, it is vital to retain more black male students. The majority of black male students start their college education at community colleges (Strayhorn, 2019). However, more depart from community college than those that graduate (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). After three years of entry of first-time, full-time degree students at two-year postsecondary institutions, 53.4% of black male students were no longer enrolled and had not transferred as compared to 41.3%, 47.0% and 33.2% for their white, Hispanic, and Asian counterparts respectively (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018).

There are many factors that influence departure, which include social challenges. Belonging in particular is important for black male students because being on a campus in which they represent the minority is an isolating experience. Isolation is further exasperated by the lack of black male faculty and administrators in higher education (Strayhorn, 2019). Having academic advisors that understand the experience of black male students is very important and can potentially reduce the complications of alienation. In order to effectively advise black males, advisors must be aware of their many challenges to be partners in their success (Wood & Harris, 2015). Here are examples of cases, with pseudonyms used for student privacy, in which black male students have been vocal about their experiences related to belonging.

Case of Jahlil. When Jahlil stands, his 6’3” husky frame can be dominating. Yet on this day as he sat humped over in the chair, his aura was more subdued. With his full head of black curly hair bowed down, he mumbled, “She doesn’t call on me.” Confused, I asked, “Who?” Jahlil responded, “My chemistry teacher. I know I don’t say anything in class, but neither do other students and she calls on them.” We were in the middle of discussing his experience as a first-year student. Jahlil went on to state that he felt many of the teachers had not been athletes while in school and have negative perceptions of athletes. 

As Jahlil shared his story, I knew that my primary advisory role at the moment was to listen and provide support as he processed his experience. Jahlil taught me about the importance of creating mindful spaces where students can unpack their experience. He also offered me insights about why some students are quiet in class. In Jahlil’s mind, his chemistry teacher believed that he did not comprehend the material, and therefore, she never called on him. In an effort to not prove her right, he never spoke in class, whether he understood the material or not. The professor’s actions alienated Jahlil from feeling connected to that professor and his classmates. He departed college at the end of the next semester.

Case of Kevin. One day after class, Kevin told me that I was his favorite professor. When I asked him why, he responded that I was the only one who made him feel like he belonged. I knew this comment deserved more attention. As I looked into Kevin’s face filled with tattoos, I asked him what happens in his other courses that make him feel that way. He responded by saying “I cannot put it into words. It is just a feeling.” Kevin did not return for his second semester.

Case of Quincy. Graduation is always one of my favorite times of year, especially when I personally know students who are graduating. When Quincy was in line to go to the stage, I snuck in a photo of both of us in our cap and gowns. When the announcer called his name, I yelled in sheer delight. It took a lot for Quincy to accomplish that milestone. A few months later, Quincy asked me to send him our graduation photo because he was going to make a post on Instagram. I logged into Instagram and there was our photo with a caption that read “I want to take a moment to shout-out to my community college and even more so to all the beautiful people, both staff and students, who’ve elevated me to new heights in life.”

The stories of Jahlil and Kevin are examples of black male students reflecting on the lack of belonging they experienced in the classroom. On the other hand, Quincy’s caption demonstrated that he had a very strong sense of connection to the institution that went beyond relationships with staff but also included students. Furthermore, students are aware of their belonging and it is important that they have space to reflect upon it. Their level of belonging directly influences whether the leave college or persist to graduation.

Academic Advising Solutions

Academic advisors cannot control if a student decides to persist toward completing a degree or not, but they can determine the level of support they provide their students. The prerequisite to facilitating a strong sense of belonging for students is caring about their success. Whether or not the student achieves their goals has to matter to the advisor. A caring attitude will determine if the following strategies will be effective.

Next, it is important to understand what is motivating the student to attend school. Here is a list of questions to help foster personal dialogue so that a connection can be formed which would eventually lead to creating a sense of belonging for the student:

  • What brings you to school at this time in your life?
  • What is motivating you to attend school?
  • You may experience challenges in this process—what is going to keep you fighting to come here?

Third, it is important to discuss the student’s goals and how being in school will help them reach their goals. This is very crucial during the early stages of establishing the student-advisor relationship. Students must understand how their education connects to their ability to accomplish other goals.

The fourth component of the process is to inquire about the student’s barriers and challenges that may prohibit them from accomplishing their goals.

Last, the fifth component is to help the student brainstorm solutions to addressing the barriers they mentioned.

Reflect on Their Perception of Belonging 

In addition to creating space to connect with black, male students on campus, academic advisors can reflect with students about the level of belonging felt in class and with other individuals on campus. The focus of this dialogue is to gain an understanding of how the student perceives their current level of connection to the institution. This is both helpful for the advisor and the student, because the advisor can make effective referrals and/or introductions. Meanwhile, the student becomes more mindful in assessing if they want to engage in activities that will enhance their sense of belonging. Here are a few questions to encourage the student to reflect on his belonging:

  • How would you describe your relationships with your instructors?
  • How comfortable are you to approach your instructors if you do not understand something or have a concern about participating in their class?
  • Do you know many people that attend school here?
  • Have you met many friends at this school?
  • Where do you spend time on campus?

Students experience academic institutions very differently based on their identities. The advising role lends itself to being the perfect space to help students connect to the institution and feel that they belong despite differences in identity.

Tonjala Eaton, M.A., GCDF
Academic and Career Advisor
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Transfer Advisor
Lansing Community College


Hovland, M. (1997). Academic advising for student success and retention. USA Group. Noel-Levitz.

Strayhorn, T. (2019). College students’ sense of belonging. Routledge Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203118924

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. University of Chicago Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018).
Table 326.20. Graduation rate from first institution attended within 150 percent of normal time for first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking students at 2-year postsecondary institutions, by race/ethnicity, sex, and control of institution: Selected cohort entry years, 2000 through 2014.  https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_326.20.asp?current=yes

Posted in: 2020 March 43:1


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