Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. | Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennslyvania

As we continue to move forward into whatever a post-pandemic educational world is going to look like, we here in higher ed would be remiss if we didn’t have serious conversations about a concept that has gained a tremendous foothold of late: belongingness. When this word first came onto my radar, I was quick to dismiss it as a mere neologism that people used to try to make themselves sound important and intelligent around others — in much the same way that the word “utilize” has unfortunately permeated the lexicon in an effort to upsize the word “use,” despite the words not actually being synonyms. Why do we need “belongingness” when the word “belonging” is referring to basically the same thing, right? Well no, actually, it isn’t.

Permit me a brief foray into the realm of dictionary definitions here, and I promise that I’ll connect all the dots by the end of this post. According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, the word “belonging” is usually used in its plural form to denote possession; it also, however, can refer to a “close or intimate relationship.” Feeling a sense of belonging involves feeling that a relationship exists. That same dictionary search comes up with nothing for “belongingness” and, instead, refers the reader again right back to the word “belonging.” In fact, many dictionaries simply don’t have an entry for this word. Lexico, part of the Oxford group, does; it defines “belongingness” as “the state or feeling of belonging to a particular group.” It’s about creating an affinity or a feeling of kinship. Apart from the fact that Lexico is using the word itself in its attempt to craft a definition of said word, this definition of “belongingness” is where I’m starting with today’s post. It works well and gets to the heart of what I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately: how to create an affinity for a particular place among community college students in general and EC3PA students in particular.

Looking more broadly, how do community colleges manage to foster a sense of belongingness among their students? Given that community college students en masse are such a disparate group, it can feel like herding cats to try to bring them together under one umbrella that is large enough to cover everyone. And yet, that’s our job when we welcome these students to our campuses: we want to help them identify as college students AND to feel like they belong here. We strive to create an environment that allows, encourages, and actively invites students to feel that state of belongingness. Our challenge? Everything. Community college students tend to be older than traditional students at four-year schools. They tend to have work, financial, and family responsibilities. They have things to do, and school is but one item on the list. Perhaps our biggest challenge is to remove them from the parking lot—class—parking lot phenomenon wherein they arrive just in time for their classes and leave just as soon as their classes conclude. And building a culture of belongingness is absolutely key to addressing this challenge.

Helping students to see and to believe that they belong here is something that we have put at the forefront of our student retention efforts here at EC3PA. Obviously, we offer equal access to education here, and that is one of the distinctive hallmarks of community-college education: we are comprehensive, open-access institutions that do not create admissions barriers for our students. At the same time, however, we do a disservice to our students (and ourselves as an institution) if we pretend that equality = equity. Equal access does not equate to equitable access, and so we work to address the latter.

In legal circles, courts often engage in a practice called “balancing the equities.” They are called to do so when the actions contemplated could disproportionately benefit one of the parties while disproportionately disadvantaging the other. These kinds of questions arise when following the strict letter of the law creates an uncontemplated, unjust result. In cases like these, courts carve out exceptions that are fairer. This cartoon is admittedly simplistic, but it illustrates well the kinds of intervention that would need to occur to make the following situation equitable. The equities here would be balanced:

equality vs equity illustration

Equity is the very least we can do, and I maintain that it’s absolutely crucial to any ability to create a sense of belongingness among our most vulnerable student populations.

In a previous entry, I posted about the “take-and-give mini-pantries” at two of our EC3PA locations. Ensuring that our students who suffer from food insecurity have access to some grab-and-go items is part and parcel of our mission of ensuring equity. We also have partnered with the Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority (EMTA) to provide free bus service for all EC3PA students. Again, this is an equity issue. We want to make sure that we are doing all that we can to make the rhetoric of equal access into one that we embody as we strive to provide equitable access. Showing students who have food and transportation insecurity that we value them and that we are committed to helping them reach their goals is how we help them feel belongingness as part of the EC3PA family.

When we create a culture of equity, belongingness increases. It’s how we shout from the rooftops to our students that they belong here, that we want them here, and that we want to help them succeed. Our Student Services staff are constantly working to develop and implement more and better ways to further this goal. And as ever, we are always open to suggestions about how we can do more and do better at increasing the culture of belongingness that we are working to develop in all that we do. We believe that equitability and belongingness go hand in hand!