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Longing to Belong

Declan Fahie

Laura Flanagan

“Goodbye,” said the fox. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eyes.”
(The Little Prince–Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Many of us look back at our time at college with nostalgia and fondness. The relationships we enjoyed there often remain significant throughout our lives. Triggered by a song or a smell or the wistful recollection of a touch, we can suddenly be whiplashed back in time to a no longer-existing place and time. The memory of these fleeting human interactions will, for some, underpin a sense of belonging and, over time, through the iterative process of telling and retelling stories, mundane experiences can often be transformed into epic poems and individuals recast as heroes or villains of mythic proportions.Love is not a word that springs to mind when thinking about colleges or institutions of higher learning. Though countless students (and staff) have met and fallen in love while studying or working in academic intuitions, I am not referring, in this instance, to romantic love. Instead, I am thinking ofa type of invisible, yet deeply inscribed, love that is site-, and time-, specific and, though shaped by memories and lived-lives, transcends the temporal world. Infused by kinship, inclusion and fellow-feeling, it is a deeply embedded evocation of being part of something which, in turn, shaped the person we each became. Love and belonging are two sides of the same coin; and an authentic sense of belonging is underpinned by the reciprocal love of another person(s). Simply put, we must love if we are to belong and we must be loved if that sense of belonging is to be steadfast and genuine. Nonetheless, while a sense of belonging usually evolves organically and cannot be artificially forced, there are a number of ways a college can nurture the development of an authentic sense of belonging. 

Community– Every college or institution of higher education is composed of buildings-lecture theatres, classrooms, labs, etc. However, though redolent of a past, we do not feel a sense of belonging towards inanimate objects like bricks and mortar. We feel a sense of belonging to the relationships we had within those spaces, to the loves, losses and laughs experienced there in. College employees and students need to feel that they are part of a supportive community. This implies a collective sense of purpose, shared values and a commitment to uphold those values. On a practical level, initiatives like choirs, sports, social outings, coffee mornings–large scale and small–all work towards fostering an authentic sense of community. But it goes beyond such orchestrated–sometimes corporatised-events. Often the key is simply a recognition that to foster genuine community, time and (breathing) space must be systematically and deliberately provided so as to allow relationships to evolve and deepen. 

Trust/Loyalty– This community then needs to trust that the organisation will act fairly and, through its person-centred ethos, will demonstrate its care for the individual. Critically, any caring organisation will question and challenge its own success criteria, to ensure they are inclusive, responsive and designed with the individual’s (and not the institution’s) wellbeing in mind.

Fairness/Transparency/Accountability– To promote a sense of belonging, a HEI needs to not only do the right thing, but to be seen to do the right thing and, critically, to act proportionality when a transgression occurs. Secrecy, obfuscation, particularly in terms of the organisational culture, undermines the individuals’ feelings of belonging and the sense that they are valued and respected. 

Whimsy– Finally, and probably the most difficult to achieve, is to foster and encourage a sense of whimsy. To not take ourselves too seriously, to laugh at pomposity and self-importance and to challenge the notion that effective working and fun are anathema to each other; to wear our scholarship and privilege lightly and tread carefully on the dreams and aspirations of others. In order to feel that one belongs to an institution of higher learning, we need to believe that, as demonstrated by its ongoing interaction with us, the college knows us, acknowledges us, cares about us and values our personal history with them. Having spent most of my own academic career researching workplace bullying, discrimination and homophobia within educational settings, I am in a relatively unique position of someone who regularly speaks with individuals who feel no sense of belonging towards their workplace and whose experiences there continue to be negative and distressing. Rather than belonging, they feel a sense of dissonance and alienation. My ongoing work examining the impact of toxic leadership in higher education starkly pitted the lived experience of employees in academic institutions against the institutional rhetoric of inclusion/wellbeing that is commonly espoused by the HR departments of colleges and universities. 

But by building community, fostering trust/loyalty, demonstrating fairness /transparency/accountability and valuing whimsy, the organisation manifests an important message; that its students, alumni, and staff belong to a community of fellow-feeling and shared experience. That they are part of a wider whole and they are valued, cared for and, dare I whisper it, that they are loved...