Helping care-experienced students develop a sense of belonging

By Jack Mollart-Solity, Widening Participation Manager*|

Making friends is a key part of developing a sense of belonging at university, which then impacts motivation to study and likelihood of continuation[i] . As part of a larger project, which explored the first-year experiences of priority group students [ii], I also focused specifically on the peer group relations of care-experienced students.

You can read an internal report summarising the first-year experiences of care-experienced, estranged and forced migrant students here.

More focus on care-experienced students is needed

There is a need for additional research which explores the experiences of these students at university, with the current evidence base being limited[iii]. That which exists, shows that whilst attending university is often viewed positively, they are more likely to withdraw[iv]. Common reasons for this are academic difficulties, a lack of support, difficulty in forming relationships and emotional isolation[v]. However, research has rarely focused explicitly on a sense of belonging, which is surprising considering its impact on student continuation [vi].

Care-experienced students may face extra difficulties in developing a sense of belonging. Reay argues elite institutions, such as King’s, have their own ethos which ‘epitomises middle classness’, excluding students from other backgrounds[vii]. Students that have been in care are likely to have different life experiences to some of their peers, which could affect their ability to feel part of a community.

Students wanted meaningful and long-lasting friendships

In interviews, creating connections was unsurprisingly seen as crucial by students. Nearly all highlighted making friends as a key aim. But in general, students wanted a specific type of friendship, emphasising the importance on them being meaningful and long lasting.

‘I’d rather spend more time with less people to make more of a real connection’

Evidence shows that these long-term connections are important for belonging[viii]. But the students interviewed found generating these friendships harder than expected. Despite interviews taking place early in their first year, many hoped they would have already developed closer friendships.

‘I wanted us to have that bond immediately. What a fantasy’

This is of particular concern. Difficulties in forming friends has been shown to have a more detrimental effect on under-represented students, impacting their sense of social fit[ix]. Previous research indicates that this can be mitigated if these difficulties are normalised, showing the need for honest communications with students, illuminating both the positive and negative parts of university life[x].

Students expressed their frustration over superficial friendships

Students often expressed their frustration over hi-bye friendships, as these were sometimes viewed as superficial.

‘I met a lot of people and I never saw them again’

Whilst this is understandable, research has shown the importance of interactions ‘with peripheral members of social networks’, or ‘weak ties’, with it contributing to wellbeing and belonging[xi]. Equally, networking with a wide range of people may create valuable connections which help with career progression or develop into closer friendships. This could mean students are undervaluing the short-term connections which often occur in the first few months at university.

Students wanted to meet people like themselves

The students interviewed were positive about meeting others they viewed as similar to themselves, whether this was related to ethnicity, time in care, background, values and interests.

Students spoke of their excitement about meeting others who had been in foster care or from the same ethnicity as them.

‘I wanted more Black girl friends. I was like, “I shall find them and I will” and I did’

But students sometimes commented on others being different to them, often referencing social capital or wealth.

‘Like there’s one woman in my year, so her family own a law firm, and everyone is her best friend…but it’s difficult for me, because I don’t have that’

A desire to meet people like yourself is natural and has been shown to impact perceptions of social integration and belonging [xii]. It is important that students find friends they fit in with, helping increase comfort in their environment and making them feel like they belong

However, Putnam has identified the importance of ‘bridging capital’, interacting with people from different social groups[xiii]. This can have a positive impact on social cohesion and civic engagement. Whilst meeting others like yourself is important, the value of mixing with other social groups should still be emphasised.

How our work might change based on these findings

Balance is important.

Students want long term friendships with people they fit in with. This has been shown to impact a sense of belonging. At KCLWP, we will consider ways that we can do this. It is likely we will increase the number of events hosted specifically for care-experienced young people. We’ll also make sure we promote societies such as the African and Caribbean society, helping students find others from similar ethnicities.

But we will also be open to students about the difficulties they may face in making friends, with the aim of normalising challenges and reducing negative effects. We will do this through events but also the emailed communications we send to care-experienced students in their first few months at King’s. We’ll also emphasise the benefits of mixing and networking with individuals from other social groups and how it can increase the ‘bridging’ capital of students, hopefully highlighting the value of ‘weak ties’.

Reflections on What Works Secondment

My secondment has now finished but it has been immensely valuable, increasing my knowledge and understanding of current academic literature.

In my experience, widening participation practitioners are committed to evidence-based practice and doing what will have most impact. However, they are often busy with events and giving direct support to students, making it hard to read new research.

For those lucky enough to have research and evaluation teams, as we do at King’s, they are fantastic allies. They share the same commitment to supporting students from under-represented backgrounds and can help make sense of complex and at times contradictory evidence.

Involving researchers and practitioners in the development and delivery of programmes increases the likelihood they will work and evolve as new evidence becomes available. This is crucial to us making universities fairer more meritocratic places, with students from different backgrounds achieving equal outcomes.

*Jack recently completed a secondment in the What Works Department. Part of this involved interviewing 6 first year care-experienced students about making friends at university.

Read our reports

Click here to join our mailing list.

Follow us on Twitter: @KCLWhatWorks



[i] Hausmann, L. R. M., Ye, F., Schofield, J. W., Woods, R. L. (2009). Sense of Belonging and Persistence in White and African First-Year Students. Research in Higher Education, 50 (7), pp. 649-669.

[ii] Priority Groups at King’s refers to care-experienced, estranged and forced migrant students.

[iii] Cotton, D. R. E., Nash P., Kneale, P.E. (2014). The Experience of Care Leavers in UK Higher Education. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 16 (3), pp. 5-21.

[iv] Harrison, N. (2017). Moving on Up: Pathways of Care Leavers and Care-experienced Students into and through Higher Education. NNECL.

[v] Harrison, N., op. cit.

[vi] Thomas, L. (2012). Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of change. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation

[vii] Reay, D. (2001). Finding or Losing Yourself?: Working-Class Relationships to Education. Journal of Education Policy, 16(4), pp. 333-346 (p. 338).

[viii] Baumeister, R.F., Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117 (3), pp. 497-529.

[ix] Walton, G. M., Cohen, G. L. (2007). A Question of Belonging: Race, Social Fit, and Achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (1), pp. 82-96.

[x] Walton, G. M., Cohen, G. L., op. cit.

[xi] Sandstrom, G. M., Dunn, E. W. (2014). Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40 (7), pp. 910-922 (p. 910).

[xii] Hausmann, L. R. M. et al., op. cit.

[xiii] Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.