College Admission: Do You Belong?

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Are you lonely? If so, ironically you are not alone. The global pandemic has caused social isolation like many of us have never experienced. Sure, we have social media, Zoom, and other 21st century ways of connecting, but these are simply bandaids to cover a deeper sense of loneliness. According to a recent report from Making Caring Common (MCC), a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, this is especially pronounced in young adults ages 18-25, 61% of whom reported serious loneliness. Meanwhile, studies found that in the fall of 2020, about half of college students showed indications of depression and/or anxiety. While mental health struggles in young adults have been amplified by the challenges of great disruption, these concerns have been rising at alarming rates for years. This begs the question of whether our schools are equipping students with the tools necessary to find connection and the resiliency to maintain it, in times of transition and challenge? As college-bound students search for a new community, do they know what to look for, what questions to ask, and how to assess their opportunities?

“All I want is a remedy”

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The mental health statistics suggest a crisis within a crisis. As more individuals are vaccinated against the coronavirus, we need to be seeking an antidote to the epidemic of loneliness. That antidote is belonging. This vital sense of connection and social-emotional wellness has been notably absent in the past year for many of us, amidst great disruption and a diminished educational experience. Halfway through the academic calendar, almost a half of all K-12 students in this nation were not physically in school, and many are facing an entire year isolated from their classmates. Simultaneously, our larger society, and certainly schools, are confronting a long-overdue reckoning with systemic racial injustice. Addressing loneliness in this context is a herculean task, but one that is especially crucial for the wellbeing of young people at an important time of individual development and transition. We need to start early with students in middle and high school so they are prepared to find this feeling of belonging as they grow.

In the MCC report, “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It”, the authors highlight three recommendations to help mitigate this crisis: 1. Provide people with information and strategies that can help them cope with loneliness 2. Build not just our physical but our social infrastructure, and 3. Work to restore our commitment to each other and the common good.

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Where there’s a will there’s WAYfinder

Fortunately, a group of educators is already working on these very recommendations. Five years ago, Project Wayfinder was born at Stanford’s d.school  when founder and CEO, Patrick Cook-Deegan sought to address one key question: “How can we re-imagine adolescent education to develop a students’ sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging?” What resulted was a robust and ever-evolving social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum for schools to integrate into their wellness and advisory programs. These research-based lessons empower students to build the critical skills to thrive in school and beyond. To date, they have reached over 20,000 students in 35 countries and 30 states and are growing. 

Wayfinder’s Belonging curriculum is their most recent development—the first in a series of Re-Imaging SEL—that was created based on feedback from students and educators. Cook-Deegan says, “We started creating a Belonging curriculum when we realized that younger students needed a strong foundation to engage with our Purpose curriculum. When we asked them about their experiences, belonging was the biggest theme we came across.” He adds, “And we were (sadly) right on time. When we started developing our Belonging curriculum in Summer 2018, we couldn’t have anticipated the series of world events that would make this topic all too relevant and quite urgent — COVID, racial justice uprisings, a tumultuous 2020 election.” 

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The curriculum provides interactive lesson plans for educators to help students explore belonging with themselves, each other, and the wider world. Each lesson includes information about foundational research into the topic, hands-on activities, and opportunities to reflect and debrief on the skills of belonging they seek to develop. For example, one lesson called “The Color of the Door” teaches about belonging as a practice that must be cultivated and encourages students to deepen their relationship with their surroundings by reflecting on a sense of “place”. Through a series of exercises like this, the three-year progression equips students to ask the right question and to intentionally find connection.

Matt Baker is the Head of School Metropolitan Arts Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, one school that has been working with Project Wayfinder. He says, “The belonging curriculum has been the miracle that has helped our students get through the pandemic. Students today have a deep need for connection, and the belonging program provides effective tools and opportunities to guide that connection and help it form.” Montclair Kimberley Academy in New Jersey also implemented the curriculum. Teacher Cort Bosc says, “In a year in which we were, quite literally dreading the prospect that our 9th graders might never form meaningful connections to each other, to us, and to the larger community, the Belonging curriculum was a lifesaver—a platform that we easily adapted to our needs and fostered some of the most rewarding conversations we’ve ever had with our incoming students.” Bosc adds, “who knows what next year will bring but we do feel confident that our students feel prepared to be active members of our/their community.”

College admission and connection

It is this preparation and belonging that will be crucial as students transition to college and other post-secondary pathways. May 1, the National Candidate Reply Date, is drawing closer and closer. This is the deadline for newly admitted college students to choose the school in which they will enroll. This year, many applicants will decide on their home for the next four years having never set foot on campus or interacting directly with members of the campus community. Meanwhile, college-bound high school juniors are beginning their college search, attempting to get a sense of place from afar.

Connection is a critical consideration when students are searching for a post-secondary home. As those who are college-bound build their application lists and choose a school, they must determine whether they will belong on each campus—in the classrooms, residence halls, and larger community. Studies from the Character Lab at the University of Pennsylvania suggest that this feeling of fitting in is one of the most important predictors of success in college. This is supported by research from the enrollment management firm EAB about student retention, persistence, and equity. 

Most young people, however, have not had to face these questions in their early years. They have not had the benefit of learning opportunities like Project Wayfinder provides. Their family and educational circumstances have previously dictated their surroundings, but now they must intentionally choose a place where they will thrive without feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Here are questions they might ask themselves:

  • Who are the types of people that challenge, support, stretch and encourage me?  
  • What types of individuals do I like to surround myself with?  
  • Am I looking for a college experience that mirrors my home/high school or one that takes me completely outside my comfort zone and exposes me to a completely new and different culture?
  • Do I want a college that has a lot of school spirit?
  • Are students engaged in and out of class?
  • What do students do on weekends?
  • Is it a “suitcase campus” where students tend to go their separate ways when classes are done?
  • How connected are the alumni? Is there a strong network that persists beyond the campus gates?
  • Do I feel a sense of community, connection, and belonging on campus? If so, how? 
  • If I am honest, do I see myself there or am I allowing other factors to influence my decision? If so, what are those factors, and do they outweigh the importance of belonging?

These and other questions are especially important for students who may have felt marginalized in other communities. Shereem Herndon-Brown is the founder and president of Strategic Admissions Advice, an educational consulting company specializing in helping families navigate the college admissions experience. He says that “for decades, as Black students begin and progress through the college application process, they have asked themselves: ‘where do I belong?’” He adds, “it’s not a simple answer, given that they have options between HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and PWI (Predominantly White Institutions). Herndon-Brown, who is also the co-author of an upcoming book about what Black parents need to know about college admission, explains that “many Black students want to go where they can be ‘celebrated, not tolerated’” He says, “this is why HBCUs exist and are flourishing. At a critical time in a young person’s life, it is essential that they are supported academically, socially, and culturally. This happens consistently at HBCUs.”

More advice from the pros

In the purest form college admission is about building a community of learners where a sense of belonging prevails. Counselors and admission leaders strive to help students find a college match that will meet their unique needs for academic engagement and personal connection. As applicants consider their options, here are some thoughts from some of those leaders:

“Belonging is about connection and being part of something beyond yourself, but it really starts with you. Knowing who you are and what you want to learn, experience or share is the first step to determine if you will feel a sense of belonging within a particular college community. I’d start with a little reflection, maybe a little writing, doodling, or telling yourself in the mirror about yourself and your hopes and desires. That will help you know what to look for and, I think, more importantly, FEEL for in a college community. Return to this reflection often. People are dynamic and we change with our experiences. If you change your mind, it’s not a problem; just a new way to think about where you might feel that belonging.”—Emily Roper-Doten, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, Olin College of Engineering

“I think the best way for applicants to know whether they will feel a sense of belonging is if they feel a connection during the search process. This may come in connecting with a tour guide or current student, an admission counselor, academic advisor, faculty member, coach, or director of a student resource office. In other words, you can’t just drive through a campus and know if you will belong. You have to research further, get to the people and the place.”—Lisa Keegan, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Bucknell University

“First off, remember there is more than just one school where you belong. There are likely hundreds of schools out there where you will fit in quite well. So…don’t overthink it. If you are getting a good vibe from the students who go there, you’re seeing like-minded folks on campus…trust that.”—Jeff Schiffman, Director of Admission, Tulane University

“The campus visit is, of course, very important. But it is not the only way to learn about a college community. Universities are eager to connect prospective students to current students, faculty, staff, and even alumni. These groups of people can be incredibly helpful because they can speak with authenticity about what it means to be a student at their institution.”—Brian Troyer; Dean of Admission; Marquette University

“Read the student paper, talk to students, and investigate the community surrounding the institution. Is there a barbershop or hairdresser that you can go to? Is there a house of worship?”—Akil Bello, Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement, Fairtest

“Applicants, regardless of how they identify, should look less at diversity statistics, and refocus on what schools are doing to promote inclusion (and on the flip side, what exclusive practices might schools be demonstrating as well). It takes much more than simply finding a community on campus that they can identify with or reading a couple of reviews. Applicants should first reflect on what they value, what they need, and if this is anchored in their sense of identity (or identities, because intersectionality is real). Next, prospective students should examine if a school provides a space that honors their values, needs, and identities, and would welcome them in the campus community at large. This can be difficult for an applicant to do, especially without visiting the campus, but it can be done by connecting with stakeholders like staff and current students, especially students that have similar identities as the applicant. Applicants should start with these honest conversations, and this examination of a school’s culture should happen throughout every step of the process, up through the ultimate decision on where to attend.”--Emmanuel Moses, Associate Director of College Guidance & Transition, The Opportunity Network

“Have lunch on campus in the dining hall during a visit. Sit amongst the students and listen to conversations and watch how students interact with one another. You’ll get a sense of what is important to the student body and the respect they show for one another.”—Thomas Bear, Vice President for Enrollment Management, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology 

“Without the benefit of an on-campus visit, students can find community online. I have seen students connect with other incoming first-year students on social media and GroupMe. Find a hashtag and jump in!”—Dr. Ashley L. Bennett, Director of College Counseling, KIPP Sunnyside High School

“Review all the things that the college is sending, that you are reading about a college, or that you hear on a virtual or live campus tour or information session. What are the 3-5 themes you hear in each setting? Pull them all together, what are the couple/few that weaved between them all. What does that tell you? Does that speak to you? Does that point out a place that will support your progression towards your full potential?”—Matt Malatesta, Vice President for Admissions, Financial Aid and Enrollment, Union College

“Many colleges offer ways for prospective students to link up with current ones online, on the phone, or even via virtual face-to-face chats. Admissions staff will tell you what they want you to hear. Current students will tell you what you want to know.”—Mary Wagner, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management, University of South Carolina

 “You want to get different perspectives on a given school since there is the greater college community as well as many micro-communities on campus. You may find it is within a student organization, cultural or religious group, or performing ensemble, but students often find the most belonging within these smaller communities on campus. Just ask students, how did you find your sense of belonging? You will likely hear some similar broad themes as well as differences for where they ultimately found smaller communities.”—Charles Murphy, Director of Freshman and International Admissions, University of Florida

Stay strong and look to belong

For certain these are challenging times when feelings of loneliness will inevitably cycle through our days and weeks. Armed with effective strategies to be more connected, we can foster a deeper sense of belonging. Whether you are a K-12 teacher helping students find their way or a college-bound student assessing opportunities, an intentional focus on this important aspect of social-emotional wellness will lead to more confidence and success.

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