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Adult Learner > Factors > Sense of Belonging

Sense of Belonging

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A Sense of Belonging allows us to feel included, respected, and supported in different life contexts, including education. It is heavily tied to our own identities and experiences. Educational settings have the potential to be a source of adversity or can be supportive environments which foster positive identity development. Learners who report a stronger Sense of Belonging in academic settings typically have greater self-efficacy and academic success.

Main Ideas

Belongingness, closely tied to one's Social Supports, is the extent that students feel personally valued, included, and supported by others in their learning environment. In U.S society, white people typically have an internalized and mostly unconscious sense of racial belonging. However, members of culturally and historically marginalized groups or first generation higher education students may feel uncertain about the quality of their social bonds in academic settings. Learners' lack of academic belonging is rooted in structural policies which privilege certain values and norms while devaluing the cultural wealth and knowledge that other learners possess. In addition, marginalized learners may experience negative behaviors from educators and other students, signaling that they do not belong in these settings (signal influences).

Identity development involves asking questions about one's past, present, and future self. This process starts at birth, peaks at adolescence, and continues through adulthood, and is heavily dependent upon lived experiences. Identity formation includes self-awareness, information-seeking, and exploration about the groups with which we identify. Identity development occurs differently across different facets of adults' identities (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability, immigrant status) and self-identification choices can change and reflect greater complexity over a lifetime. In the U.S., members of more dominant, privileged groups are often considered the 'standard'; therefore, individuals from marginalized groups may feel as if they don't belong or their identities are not represented. A strong ethnic or racial identity has been shown to buffer the negative effects of discrimination in Black, Latino, and indigenous populations, and to encourage positive psychological and behavioral outcomes across identities, including higher self-esteem, psychological well-being, and academic adjustment.

Racial Identity Theory suggests that our racial identity is made of three core components:

  • Centrality: Dominance of race to one's self-concept
  • Private regard: One's own positive/negative feelings towards being one's race
  • Public regard: Perceptions of how others view one's race

Racial identity development entails forging an understanding of how the centrality and public perception of race is intertwined with personal identity.

It is also important to recognize that many people have concealed/non-visible identities that may be stigmatized, such as mental or emotional health, or learning disabilities. These non-visible identities can impact an individual's Sense of Belonging, Social Supports, and health. In addition, many adults have multiple marginalized identities which intersect and may further compound difficulties in belonging. When educators recognize adults' intersectional identities, this can build a strong positive culture and play a role in empowering leaners.

Exploring and connecting with one's identities can be important for adult learners, particularly as strengthened academic self-concept can positively affect motivation and academic outcomes. Apart from learning and work settings, social