Stuck in the Middle: Asian Students’ Sense of Belonging

By Jawad Anjum, On Purpose Associate|

Over the past two years, our students who identify as Asian have had significantly lower reported feelings of ‘belonging’ than other students. Jawad Anjum describes the work we’ve been doing to understand this further.

Each year, we measure students’ reported sense of belonging through a series of enrolment questions.  Over the last couple of years, analysis of this data has shown that students who identified as Asian report statistically lower feelings of belonging than other ethnic groups. To explore this, I organised a series of focus groups for Asian students at King’s. In the end, due to coronavirus, we conducted 5 focus groups and 1 interview, speaking to 24 students, half the planned sample. Although the numbers weren’t what I aimed for, the discussions were really interesting. Below are the key themes coming out of the discussions.

Sense of belonging is important for student success

We measure students sense of belonging because it impacts student motivation[i][ii] and retainment[iii].  To feel a sense of belonging we must feel that we have a strong network, to feel part of a “social milieu”[iv] and have regular, good quality and supportive [v] contact with others.  When asked about their networks of friends, some students described having high levels of bonding capital (links to people based on a sense of common identity) through a mostly ethnically or culturally homogeneous groups of friends but little bridging social capital (links that stretch beyond a shared identity), and some students the opposite- lots of very different friends, but not one they felt was similar to them. Few had both types of connections, which has implications of their access to social capital, the resources (such as information) we get through our different networks to help us succeed.

Societies were a popular way of building friendships and connections for some, but many struggled

In our discussions, there was a sense of wanting to connect with “people like me” and societies were a popular way to do this, to feel belonging through a sense of shared community[vi]. This was great for those who matched the dominant culture of the society, but alienating for students who identified with the group, but didn’t meet the ‘people like me’ criteria of the organisers, e.g. due to different values, practices or language.

“I found myself in a state of – I’m not White enough, I’m not Asian enough, so, where do I fit in?”

Many told us that they struggled to make friends. Some international students talked about the difficulty making friends from other cultures when you know at the end of your course you’ll go back home, and probably never see them again. This also acts as disincentive for others to put the effort into making friendships with them. If students are making friendships, but perceive them to be transient, this could also influence feelings of belonging[vii].

Students varied in their experiences of building networks amongst academics, flatmates and classmates

In terms of building their networks academically, which is important for feelings of academic integration (see the work of Tinto[viii]), experiences also varied, some had made friends through lectures, others told us they didn’t have the time or space to meet with classmates outside of lectures.

“[..] but, I can also see how it would be difficult if I didn’t have my tutor group because I feel like the friends I did make outside my tutor group, encounters with them were more rare and more by chance because there’s nothing really setting up a situation where you guys come together.”

One student highlighted that his relationship with his personal tutor and the rapport he had with two other lecturers was an outlet for broad ranging discussion and helped him to navigate his time throughout his study at King’s.

The extent that language barriers existed was a key factor in student belonging

The role of language played an important part in these discussions about belonging. Language barriers were both actual for some and perceived for others. For example, one student who identified as White, told us she felt her accent made it difficult for international students to understand her. Fluency in English was a massive enabler, helping students not to ‘feel out of place’.

“For people who have grown up in this country and I’m assuming as well for people who haven’t but speak English well, and…have lived here for a bit, you have two potential cultures that you could identify with but both of them you’re not 100% associated with”

An example of how important fluency in English was is the differences in experiences in student accommodation, with those who lived with people who spoke the same language more able to identify things they had in common, and not come across as ‘rude’ due to lack of comprehension.

Perceptions of difference existed on both sides

I was personally struck by how much of the conversation centred around perceptions, not just of others, but of ourselves, and of how others perceive us. Particularly perceptions of difference. A lot of the students said they were different to Western students because they had a different culture, and for many western culture was something they had to decide whether to engage with. Some Asian home students also told us that they were mistaken for international students, and a couple of participants spoke about feeling like they were always the ones to instigate conversations and always needed to demonstrate their approachability to non-Asian students.

“I think the reason why at certain times in my university life, I didn’t belong,  was just predominantly, like, what a lot of people have already said, it’s like this…I’m going to broadly categorize it as the ‘Western culture’ that predominantly is what makes the current move, if that makes sense, and, if you oppose the current it’s very hard to fit in”

When discussing the ways in which the Asian students we spoke to felt different to the rest of the student body, the most common response was alcohol. Some participants partook, but those who didn’t found that this ruled out a lot of university social activities for them.

[In relation to her sports society] “It’s a taboo topic, to talk about not drinking”

The perceptions of whether non-drinkers would be included or even welcomed led to some avoiding social occasions. For example, one Asian student described not joining Netball club due to their perception that they wouldn’t be welcome for not drinking. However, in another discussion a non-drinking student who was on the Netball team said it wasn’t a problem. This demonstrates how perceptions of barriers compound with actual barriers to make university a potentially very isolating place.

There is a rich tapestry of culture to be celebrated at King’s

When asked why they liked King’s, many students mentioned its diversity. Several groups suggested that King’s should conduct events that celebrate more festivals and holidays from different cultures and religions (e.g. Diwali) as a means for everyone to take part, share their own background and experience cultures different from their own.

When asked what changes they would like to see to increase belonging, students suggested that more culturally accessible events, such as cooking classes and movie clubs, should be available. They also asked for more events during the day, both because drinking is less frequent, and more could come.

We need to open discussions to break down unhelpful labels and perceptions

In setting up these focus groups, as the data we based our findings on was based on students ‘identifying’ as Asian, this is who we invited, vowing not to turn anyone away. A few non-Asians did turn up to some discussions. It had an interesting effect on the conversation, on the one hand it felt to me like it limited the discussion, with Asian students seeming more prepared to express themselves in the all Asian groups, but it did offer a counterfactual, especially from one White student who had very good social capital, it was striking how different her experience was. We got useful insight from everyone who took part.

These focus groups demonstrate the importance of talking to students, and not just drawing conclusions from data. Although ‘Asian’ students as a group reported lower belonging, the distinction was quite arbitrary, we spoke to people from as far afield as Hong Kong, India and Malaysia, international students and home students, well off and not so well off. They had very different needs and experiences, and it’s impossible to represent even just the 24 we spoke to here.

The message from these focus groups is that when you want to influence the student experience, talk to the students. Something I’ve learnt from doing these focus groups has been the importance of talking to others. Whether that’s people inside or outside our usual social circles, whether it’s staff engaging with students more, or creating more opportunities for students of all backgrounds to come together; the effect it has on our assumptions, perceptions and overall wellbeing is remarkable.


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[i] Goodenow, C. (1993b). The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates. Psychology in the Schools, 30, 70-90

[ii] Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, Paul Hamlyn Foundation

[iii] Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45, 89–125.

[iv] Vallerand, R. J. (1997). Toward a hierarchical model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 271-360). New York: Academic Press. Pg300

[v] Goodenow, C. (1993). Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: relationships to motivation and achievement. Journal of Early Adolescence, 13, 21-43.

[vi] Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. F. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on latino college students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of Education, 70, 324-345.

[vii] Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529. Pg 497

[viii] Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45(1), 89-125.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for some interesting insights. As a non-drinking (white) person, I can empathise with the dominance of the drinking culture, although I managed to navigate it ok – particularly when I got older as I was in demand as the driver! I think more day time social and educational events are a good idea (for both students and staff), especially if they involve tea and cake…

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