It is widely evidenced that students’ sense of belonging is linked to higher engagement and outcomes.
Recent Wonkhe research found that the most likely space in which students forge connections after course contact hours was in their student accommodation.
This made sense to Luke – a Hall Warden in his tenth year of living halls. Halls are where students prepare and enjoy meals, socialise and relax with friends, and study alone or with others. Of course they possess enormous potential as places that foster a sense of belonging.
To better understand students’ sense of belonging, we embarked on two longitudinal projects: the mixed methods Belonging, Engagement and Community (BEC) project and the Imperial Bursary project.
The BEC project interviews students from all levels of study about their sense of belonging and invites these participants for follow-up interviews after they have completed their studies. Before asking more direct questions about their sense of belonging, we asked students about where they felt most at home.
Unsurprisingly, spaces of residence were a main topic of conversation from which we drew four contributing themes: arrival, diversity, support, and friendships. Also, unsurprisingly, we found that Covid-19 lockdowns changed the pertinence of halls for students.
For many students, their first interaction with their university is through their halls of residence. This experience sets a precedent for how they engage with Welcome Week, the rest of their first year and potentially beyond. For international students especially, halls strongly shape their perception of a new institution, city, country, and continent.
For students who are finding the move away from home, new independence, and new environment challenging, hall support teams play a crucial role in helping students make sense of uncertainties, pass on vital information, and assist in building community.
Halls are a uniquely diverse university space in both student demographic and discipline and so hold the potential to be an alternative, unique form of university community for students. While differences in lifestyle, course schedule and personality were cited as sources of tension, learning to live respectfully was seen as developing essential communication skills, empathy, and responsibility.
This adaptation is supported by Wardens who mediate conflicts between students and respond to cases that escalate to harassment and bullying. Effectively supporting students through these incidents is vital and can lead to a stronger sense of safety and trust in halls.
Interestingly, hall kitchens are frequently reported as one of the halls’ most significant diverse social spaces. Whether it be a cultural occasion such as Thanksgiving or a student’s birthday, kitchens can be the epitome of cross-cultural, cross-demographic mixing, social discovery, and integration.
Kitchens are safe, communal spaces where students can study and learn together or in the presence of others. Even now it is not uncommon to see a maths student helping an engineering student with their maths coursework. Identifying and nurturing impromptu social spaces like hall kitchens might help address students’ sector-wide challenges, including loneliness, withdrawal, and lack of belonging.
Traditionally, Wardens have seen themselves strictly as the guardians of student wellbeing and organisers of social activities. But, with the increasing use of halls as learning spaces after the advent of hybrid learning delivery, Wardens now also support and advise students struggling with academic issues. These issues can range from students who can’t afford a laptop for remote study to students worried about time management to students who feel overwhelmed by a high workload and new way of learning.
In taking a more holistic view of the student experience institutions may see the role of Warden teams shift to take on more academic support responsibility. If this is the case, the appropriateness of titles like ‘Warden,’ may need to be reconsidered. Instead, use language that reflects the evolving responsibility and value of these roles such as ‘Residence Fellows.’
Creating opportunities where students can take advantage of social opportunities was highlighted as vital in Wonkhe and Pearson’s belonging research.
Hall events with free food and inclusive event activities can be enough to give students ‘a reason’ to socialise and ‘entice’ students that would otherwise remain in their bedrooms.
The ongoing challenge relates to how we can engage all students in ways where they feel included without just serving the subgroup of social students who already attend hall events.
Outside of organised events, hall social spaces like corridors, common rooms and laundry rooms can support the formation of lasting friendships.
These friendships are also crucial for the students’ upcoming transition out of halls into private accommodation. The ability to select and move into private housing with trusted hall friends with whom students can share rental fees and the challenges of living privately made an enormous difference for many students.
And our efforts as a sector to cultivate lasting friendships in halls which support students through these transitions deserve further attention.
Of course, predictably, the closure of hall common rooms and the prohibition of household mixing during successive lockdowns isolated students, which heightened students’ feelings of isolation and social anxiety. During lockdowns, hall teams found themselves balancing conflicting roles between being approachable pastoral figures and disciplinarians who enforced COVID-19 rules.
The student perception of Wardens transitioned from friendly faces to what one student described as individuals who “don’t care”. Students went from perceiving halls as ‘safe spaces’ more as sunk costs – which led many students to return to family homes and away from the university community. Warden teams, communal hall spaces and organised events – perhaps taken for granted before COVID-19 – should be recognised as instrumental in nurturing students’ sense of belonging at university and their potential influence over student mental wellbeing.
The research is still ongoing, and several factors will impact where and what we examine next. For example, the cost-of-living crisis and expanding student numbers raise important questions about the important role halls of residences play in student belonging. For a start, a growing number of students won’t be able to live in halls. So we must link what we know about belonging and halls with other educational and social spaces within the university.